WARSAW (Reuters) - European soccer’s major powers looked set to dominate the final stages of Euro 2012 after a testing evening for Italy and Spain ended with them both easing through on Monday to join Germany, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Greece in the last eight.
France and England lead the running to fill the final two last-eight places, although England must first avoid defeat by hosts Ukraine who are sweating over the fitness of talisman Andriy Shevchenko.
World champions Spain were living on a knife edge in their game in Gdansk where a Croatia goal could have knocked them out but Jesus Navas struck two minutes from time to secure a 1-0 victory and set up a clash with the Group D runners-up.
“It was a very tense match, very tough,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said.
“They closed ranks at the back very well and didn’t give us much space. We got through it and the important thing even when you have a poor day is that you keep advancing in the competition.”
Italy were also pushed until late on by an Irish side who have lost all three games but brought a green army of passionate fans to Poland for a tournament being held in eastern Europe for the first time.
Goals from Antonio Cassano after 35 minutes and a spectacular late effort by Mario Balotelli saw them home, helped by a late red card for Irish midfielder Keith Andrews.
“It has been a very difficult match, we came up against a team that made us suffer,” said Cesare Prandelli, credited with giving the Azzurri a more attacking approach than usual
“We created a lot, I hope it will be like this also in the next match.”
Germany’s victory over Denmark on Sunday set up a clash with Greece which has turned minds to a deepening economic crisis, pitting the euro zone’s most troubled country against its rich paymaster on Friday.
Precious few Greek fans have made the trip due to a mixture of searing budget cuts, tax rises and economic collapse which have crippled households in the country of 11 million people and left more than half its young out of work.
Spanish supporters, by contrast, streamed into the Baltic coast city of Gdansk in defiance of a worsening domestic economic picture which has forced the government to seek aid for its banks and driven unemployment above 20 percent.
“The most important thing for us is to give some happiness to the Greek people, that’s all, to make them celebrate in the street, given everything that is going on,” Greece midfielder Giannis Maniatis told reporters.
Poland were knocked out on Saturday and Ukraine’s chances of keeping one of the host nations involved in the tournament’s latter stages have taken a blow with injury doubts over the striker Shevchenko.
He took part in a squad training session on Monday after earlier being rated by the team doctor as having only a 50-50 chance of playing in Tuesday’s final Euro 2012 Group D match against England.
France and England need draws to go through and only victory will do for Ukraine.
UEFA president Michel Platini said the co-hosts had “already won” the championship for the legacy it would leave and the improvements it has forced on football and transport infrastructure.
“It’s not been perfect but I‘m very very happy,” Platini said of the biggest sporting event to be staged in eastern Europe since the Berlin Wall fell.
“The atmosphere in the stadiums has been 99.9 percent fantastic,” said Platini, picking out the Poland v Russia and Ukraine v Sweden games as “extraordinary” to be present at.
The tournament has also been marked by a debate over racism and a series of UEFA disciplinary proceedings against countries for their fans’ conduct.
But the latest to feel the governing body’s wrath was Denmark striker Nicklas Bendtner, banned for one match and fined 100,000 euros ($126,200) for revealing the logo of a betting company on his underpants while celebrating a goal in his team’s 3-2 loss to Portugal.
The Czechs and Portugal will meet in the first quarter-final on Thursday.
Editing by Ed Osmond