Italy 20-34 Ireland: Hansen strikes twice as Farrell's side maintain Grand Slam charge

By Sports Desk February 25, 2023

Ireland kept their Six Nations Grand Slam charge on track after a 34-20 victory over a spirited Italy in Rome.

Mack Hansen crossed twice while stand-in captain James Ryan, Hugo Keenan and Bundee Aki also went over at Stadio Olimpico for Andy Farrell's side, who recorded their third straight bonus-point win in this year’s tournament.

Although without the injured Johnny Sexton, the visitors registered their 23rd Six Nations win over Italy in 24 attempts – and 10th on the bounce.

Despite a determined display, the hosts continued their dismal record on home soil, where they have now suffered 24 successive defeats since beating Ireland 10 years ago.

Ireland came flying out the blocks, and although TMO denied James Lowe the opening try after just 90 seconds, the Leinster wing soon turned provider for Ryan to cross.

Having pushed reigning champions France all the way in their Six Nations opener, Italy responded with Stephen Varney going over after a rapid burst from Lorenzo Cannone.

But the visitors soon established control. Keenan broke through and rode challenges to regain the lead, while a series of sharp offloads enabled Aki and Hansen to cross in the corners.

Italy gave themselves hope before the break as Pierre Bruno intercepted Aki's offload on halfway to dash for the line.

A tight second half ensued with the hosts drawing on all their defensive resolve to prevent Ireland from extending their advantage as Paolo Garbisi and Ross Byrne exchanged kicks.

But the visitors finally put the result beyond doubt nine minutes from time when a neat offload released Hansen, who made no mistake in claiming his second try.

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  • Croatia v Italy: Spalletti looking for response from 'tired' Azzurri Croatia v Italy: Spalletti looking for response from 'tired' Azzurri

    Italy head coach Luciano Spalletti insists his side must improve on their display against Spain when they face Croatia in Leipzig next Monday. 

    The Azzurri's 10-game unbeaten run at the Euros came to an end at the hands of Luis de la Fuente's side after Riccardo Caliafiori's own goal in the second half. 

    During the defeat, Italy's lack of attacking threat was clear, registering their fewest shots in a game on record at the Euros (four).

    Italy are second in Group B, with Croatia bottom, though it is all to play for, with both sides capable of progressing or even missing out on a place in the last 16.

    "Maybe I needed to give them more rest, I probably need to give them more days off, we gave them a day and a half off in terms of rest and we saw that was the right decision in terms of our data," Spalletti said.

    "But there was too much of a gulf, we were constantly stretched, we probably didn't recover very well in terms of just how demanding and important the tournament was itself, because there was too much of a gulf in terms of sharpness and freshness."

    Italy have never lost consecutive games at the European Championships, but are faced with a side they have failed to beat in their previous eight encounters. 

    Spalletti believes his side can take inspiration from Spain's dominant display over them, saying: "Everyone would love to copy Spain in terms of the way they play. They've been playing the best football for the longest time now. 

    "I need to try and succeed in making my players aware of how important this sort of match is, because if you sit very deep against teams like this, ultimately it becomes very difficult."

    Meanwhile, Croatia are on the verge of a surprise group-stage exit after picking up just one point so far.

    Head coach Zlatko Dalic has come in for criticism back home, despite having led the team to the 2018 World Cup final, 2022 World Cup semi-finals, and last year's Nations League final in an unprecedented spell of success.

    "We will do everything to prepare for Italy. I have learned some things in these seven years where there have been far more successes than failures," Dalic said. 

    "I'm also used to criticism. I always say it's my responsibility. I am aware that when medals are won, my role ‘means nothing’ and that I am there by accident, but that’s how it is in Croatia."

    Dalic stuck with his midfield trio of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, and Marcelo Brozovic against Albania, but replaced Brozovic at half-time with 21-year-old Luka Sucic, who impressed.

    "Those who deserve to play, play," Dalic said. "I choose with the staff what I think is best.

    "Of course, some others have merit, but those who I think are the best play. Here are those who deserve to be here. This probably applies to the older players and I will be with them as long as I live, but those who deserve to play, play."

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Croatia - Luka Modric

    In what could be his final appearance for his nation at a major tournament, Modric continues to prove that age is just a number. The Real Madrid midfielder started his 15th game in the European Championships, with only Andres Iniesta (16) starting more often among midfielders in the history of the competition.

    His 20 line-breaking passes were the most of any player against Albania, and he became the oldest player on record (since 1980) to complete 100+ passes in a match at the European Championships (108 v Albania today, 38y 284d). 

     

    Italy - Gianluigi Donnarumma

    With the Italians' forward line restricted to just four shots against Spain in their last encounter, Donnarumma will be key to ensure they prevent conceding against Croatia. 

    The Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper is set to make his 10th Euros appearance aged 25 years and 120 days on the day of the game, becoming the youngest goalkeeper to hit this milestone in European Championship history.

    MATCH PREDICTION: DRAW

    Even though Opta's model makes Italy marginal favourties, Croatia boast an impressive record against the Azzurri and will be looking to continue that record as they look to confirm their progression to the knockout stages. 

    Since gaining independence in the early 1990s, Croatia are unbeaten in their eight meetings against Italy (W3 D5). However, their last three games have all ended 1-1. 

    Dalic's side have not gone through a group stage without winning at a major tournament since the 2006 World Cup (D2 L1). They have won their final group game at three of their last four major tournaments (D1) since losing 3-1 to Mexico at the 2014 World Cup.

    Croatia also boast an excellent record against the current reigning champions of the tournament. This will be their fifth against the current holders of the trophy, each coming in the group stages. 

    Since the group phase was introduced in 1980, Italy have lost their final group game in only one of their nine appearances at the UEFA European Championship (W6 D2), going down 1-0 against the Republic of Ireland in 2016.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    Croatia - 32.6%

    Draw - 27.7%

    Italy - 39.7%

  • Italy fortunate to only lose by one, concedes Spalletti Italy fortunate to only lose by one, concedes Spalletti

    Italy boss Luciano Spalletti conceded the Azzurri were never in their Euro 2024 game against Spain and felt the defending champions were fortunate not to lose by more than a one-goal margin.

    Riccardo Calafiori's second-half own goal made the difference as Spain defeated Italy 1-0 in Gelsenkirchen on Thursday.

    The defender became the first Italy player to ever put through his own net in a European Championship match and a poor loss left the Azzurri with work still to do to secure progression from Group B.

    Spain fired off 20 shots to Italy's four, also creating 1.9 expected goals (xG) to the Azzurri's 0.18 and enjoying 57.2 per cent of the possession, with La Roja clinching their place in the knockout rounds.

    Spalletti was honest in his post-match assessment, with a huge clash against Croatia in Leipzig to follow on Monday.

    "It is a result they [Spain] deserved and beyond the one-goal difference," Spalletti told reporters.

    "They deserved to win it and we were never in the game

    "Besides the final 20 minutes of the match we were never able to create situations which would allow us to actually compete against a brand of football of this level.

    "They caused us problems larger than the scoreline suggested, let’s not beat around the bush. 

    "Spain were a team on the night and we were not able to be a team."

    If they are to lift more silverware in Berlin next month, Italy will need a dramatic improvement, as attempting just four shots in the match meant it was their fewest on record (since 1980) in any Euros game.

    By contrast Spain, who were drawn into what many believed to be the toughest group at the tournament, have  made light work of some difficult opponents, thrashing Croatia 3-0 before comfortably overcoming Italy.

    They have clinched top spot in Group B with a game to spare, while Italy are second on three points, two clear of Croatia and Albania going into the final round of games.

    Finding a way to increase his players' energy levels was on Spalletti's mind going into the clash with Zlatko Dalic's side.

    Spalletti added: "Maybe I needed to give them more rest, I probably need to give them more days off.

    "We gave them a day and a half off in terms of rest and we saw that was the right decision in terms of our data.

    "But there was too much of a gulf, we were constantly stretched, we probably didn't recover very well in terms of just how demanding and important the [start of the] tournament was itself, because there was too much of a gulf in terms of sharpness and freshness.

    "You can't necessarily talk about anything else, overall. If you don't have the same stamina as the opposition, obviously you can't do things with the same reactivity, the same speed of reaction."

    If Italy are able to secure second place in Group B, they will face the runners-up in Group A, a position currently held by Switzerland, in the last 16.

  • De la Fuente hails Spain squad as world's best after Italy win De la Fuente hails Spain squad as world's best after Italy win

    Spain coach Luis de la Fuente believes he is working with the best group of players in world football after La Roja clinched their place in the Euro 2024 knockout rounds by beating Italy.

    Spain were drawn into what many believed to be the toughest group at the tournament but have made light work of some difficult opponents, thrashing Croatia 3-0 before overcoming Italy 1-0 on Thursday.

    They have clinched top spot in Group B with a game to spare, with Riccardo Calafiori's own goal handing them their deserved victory over the reigning champions.

    Spain fired off 20 shots to Italy's four in Gelsenkirchen, also creating 1.9 expected goals (xG) to the Azzurri's 0.18 and enjoying 57.2 per cent of the possession.

    This is just the second time La Roja have started a European Championships tournament by winning their first two games to nil, after they beat Czechia 1-0 and Turkiye 3-0 in 2016.

    The likes of Nico Williams, Lamine Yamal and Pedri all dazzled against Italy, leaving De la Fuente convinced he is in charge of the most talent squad at the Euros. 

    "I think we're the best in the world in terms of interpreting various match situations," De la Fuente said at his post-match press conference.

    "Of course, that is really reinforced and strengthened when you win silverware. 

    "But I think it's important to really underline the quality of this generation of players, the players that have broken into this squad. I think the Spanish players are the best in the world."

    While De la Fuente now has the luxury of being able to rest players against Albania on matchday three, he knows there can be no room for complacency in the last 16.

    "I think we were superior across the board from a footballing perspective," he added. "Perhaps it even seemed that Italy played badly, but that's because we played very well.

    "Italy won the Euros three years ago. We're still a long way off winning the European Championship. We haven't yet achieved anything. Okay, we've won some important matches. We have wonderful prospects.

    "But football can also be very cruel. So we need to be cautious. We need to be humble. We need to show respect."

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