World Cup champion Italy made it through the toughest group at this year's European Championship, advancing to the quarter-finals Tuesday by beating France 2-0.
The Italians, who benefited from the Netherlands' 2-0 win over Romania in the other Group C match, got goals from Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi in Zurich, Switzerland, after Eric Abidal was red-carded for bringing down Luca Toni in the 24th minute. In the knockout round, Italy will face Spain on Sunday in Vienna.
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“This was a great response from the entire team,” Italy coach Roberto Donadoni said. “Our enthusiasm and spirit pushed us forward, even when it all seemed lost at one point.”
The Dutch team had already clinched first place in the group, but Klaas-Jan Huntelaar gave the second-choice squad its third straight win by tapping in a cross from Ibrahim Afellay in the 54th in Bern. Robin van Persie added the other in the 87th.
“This says a lot. This is not a 'B' team,” Van Persie said. “We have one group, 23 players. We are as good as equals.”
On Wednesday, the final quarter-final spot will be decided when Sweden plays Russia in Innsbruck in Group D. The Swedes need only a draw, while the Russians need to win to set up a match against the Netherlands on Saturday in Basel. The Spaniards play Euro 2004 champion Greece in Salzburg.
Portugal, Turkey, Croatia and Germany have also reached the quarter-finals. Italy, which beat France on penalties to win its fourth World Cup title two years ago, took the lead Tuesday after Abidal brought Toni down from behind.
The Italy striker beautifully controlled a long pass into the area with his right leg stretched to the limit, but was then hit by Abidal with goalkeeper Gregory Coupet coming forward. The referee gave Abidal a straight red card and Pirlo sent the ensuing penalty kick into the top left corner.
De Rossi made it 2-0 in the 62nd with a free kick that deflected off France captain Thierry Henry.
France, already playing without injured midfielder Patrick Vieira, faced more trouble early in the match when Franck Ribery was injured while fouling Gianluca Zambrotta in the seventh minute. Zambrotta walked away from the collision, but Ribery was taken off the field on a stretcher and replaced a few minutes later by Samir Nasri. After Abidal's red card, Nasri was taken out and replaced by Jean-Alain Boumsong.
“For me, this team has a future. I am proud of what they did,” France coach Raymond Domenech said. “This team has real potential, players who can hope to have a big future.”
The Netherlands had a few chances to score in the first half, most notably when Huntelaar's soft pass to Arjen Robben in the area was shot wide. But Huntelaar calmly tapped in the lone goal in the second half after Afellay's cross got through several players standing in front of goal.
With the Netherlands already assured of a spot in the quarter-finals, many believed the Dutch team would contrive to lose its final Group C match, thereby allowing Romania to advance and avoid the possibility of facing either Italy or France in the semifinals.