GDANSK (Reuters) - Not even a mucky night more akin to November in Dublin or the will of 20,000 passionate green-shirted fans could hide the gulf in class as Fernando Torres scored twice to ease holders Spain to a 4-0 win over Ireland at Euro 2012 on Thursday.
Unfortunately for Ireland, Torres offered a glimpse of the spark that has deserted him at Chelsea as world champions Spain, with David Silva and Cesc Fabregas also on target, gave a masterclass in the game’s finer arts.
Ireland’s players manned the pumps valiantly to keep their hopes afloat at the Gdansk Stadium, just across from the city’s famous docks, but it proved to be mission impossible as Spain moved joint top of Group C with Croatia.
Despite sliding to a predictable defeat which means they will return home after their final game against Italy, Ireland’s fans were still singing their hearts out long after the final whistle and their presence will remain one of the abiding memories of the tournament.
Were the Henri Delaunay Trophy presented to the nation with the best supporters, Ireland would win it hands down.
As it is Spain remain favorites, although they still have work to do to reach the quarter-finals.
They are level on four points with Croatia and the two nations meet on Monday in what will be a decider for top spot.
Defeat for either allied with a victory for Italy over the Irish would mean they will be packing their bags.
”We knew from the beginning we needed to win this game and the next one,“ man-of-the-match Torres told reporters. ”With the early goal everything was easier and the performance of the team was really great tonight.
“We are well on the way to getting through to the next round. All our minds are focused on the next game now.”
As their fans drifted away to the bars and clubs of the Baltic city, Ireland’s players offered no excuses, just admiration for their superior opponents.
“They’re the best team I’ve ever faced without a shadow of a doubt,” said sweat-streaked midfield Keith Andrews.
“At times, well for the vast majority, we were chasing shadows and never got near them.”
After the disappointing 1-1 draw against Italy in their opening match, Spain were firing on all cylinders again, albeit against limited opponents.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque abandoned his experiment of a strikerless team with Fabregas, scorer of the equalizer against Italy, the unlucky one to make way for Torres.
It took Chelsea’s misfiring 50 million-pound ($77.8 million)man only four minutes to justify del Bosque’s decision.
Until his thunderbolt broke the deadlock Ireland had enjoyed their fair share of possession and even managed an early foray deep into Spanish territory where Simon Cox’s well-struck shot forced keeper Iker Casillas into the game’s first serve.
“You’ll never beat the Irish,” bellowed the swathes of green-shirted fans who appeared to fill at least half of the spectacular 40,000-seater amber colored arena, but their roars were soon stuck in their throats.
Zipping the ball around on a pitch made greasy by light rain Spain picked their way towards Ireland’s goal, Iniesta threaded a pass to Silva on the edge of the area and although Richard Dunne made a meaty block the loose ball was seized upon in a flash by Torres who lashed it past Shay Given.
It was Torres’s first tournament goal since he scored the winner in the final of Euro 2008 and offered a reminder of a talent that has lain dormant in the Premier League.
Even Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca was a headache for Ireland, shoving over Andrews as Ireland tried to stem the red tide heading their way.
Dunne typified Ireland’s commitment, throwing himself in the way of one of countless shots fired in by Iniesta while another stinging effort was tipped over by Shay Given.
Ireland’s players were puffing hard as halftime approached but they made it back to the changing rooms with hope.
That all changed four minutes into the second period.
Iniesta’s shot was parried by Given but the ball fell to Silva who calmly threaded a measured shot inside the post after his initial effort was blocked.
With not even an hour on the clock Spain’s goal attempt tally rose to 20 with Iniesta’s thumping shot clawed away by Given.
Torres added his second, his 30th international goal lifting him above Fernando Hierro to third on Spain’s all-time scoring list, after 70 minutes when Silva played him in.
He was substituted before he could complete a hat-trick but Fabregas came on to complete Ireland’s misery, spearing in an unstoppable shot off the post from a tight angle.
Editing by Ed Osmond