" Achtung! Celebrating football fans in Langstrasse...," intoned the Zurich tram driver, informing passengers that the centre of the city and thus the nightlife and entertainment districts were no longer directly accessible by public transport. Italian fans, ecstatic after their team's 2-0 triumph against France, had commandeered the downtown streets, the scene for a sea of green, white and red flags, horn-honking motorcades, and chants of " Forza Italia". Victory at the Letzigrund stadium saw the Azzurri through to the UEFA EURO 2008 quarter-finals. "Italy lives!" declared coach Roberto Donadoni after one of the most important successes of his career.

No-one involved made any attempt to disguise the overwhelming relief after Italy's sub-standard start to the European championships. The FIFA World Cup™ holders fell to a demoralising 3-0 defeat against the Netherlands in their opening match, before Donadoni's team laboured to a 1-1 draw with Romania in their second game, in which only keeper Gianluigi Buffon's late penalty save from Adrian Mutu kept the Italians from packing for home at an embarrassingly early stage.

The third and final group match, a re-run of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final, caused more dread than anticipation for both teams involved. A true do-or-die affair, only the winners would have any hope of making the last eight, but it seemed destined to be Italy's night right from the start. France schemer Franck Ribery injured himself in an early challenge with Gianluca Zambrotta and had to be substituted. Then Eric Abidal felled Italy hitman Luca Toni in the box, prompting the France stopper's dismissal and allowing Andrea Pirlo to hand his side the lead from the penalty spot. The game was effectively over as a contest after 25 minutes, as the French invested commendable energy but lacked the manpower to create any real menace. Daniele de Rossi's deflected free-kick to double the advantage sealed Italy's joy and France's misery.

"I can't say I'm happy we've knocked out the French, but obviously I'm delighted Italy are through to the quarter-finals," admitted Fabio Grosso, on the books at Ligue 1 giants Lyon. "In an ideal world, both teams would have qualified, because I play there, and I like it there."

For all the elation at making the last eight, there was no papering over the Azzurri's below-par displays in all three group fixtures. "Winning is obviously the big positive of the evening," Donadoni commented afterwards, "but it also showed we have a few things to work on. We had an extra man, but we didn't dominate the game."

Goals dry up for Toni

The coach expressed dismay at his side's failure to put away their chances: "We had a string of great opportunities but we didn't use them." Donadoni was too polite to name names, but he must have been thinking of Toni, guilty of squandering a host of presentable openings. "Luca Toni score!" chanted the Italian fans at the Letzigrund, but it was in vain as the Bayern striker made it three matches without opening his account. The Italian finished top scorer in the Bundesliga last term with 24 goals, but his killer instinct has deserted him, and his finishing at the EURO has been wayward to say the least. "Luca played well but was unlucky in front of goal," Donadoni said in the player's defence. Asked by reporters if he was considering changes up front, the coach gave an unequivocal answer. "I couldn't change the forward line, because we were forced to make so many changes in midfield." In any case, the coach lacks genuine alternatives at the business end of the park.

Donadoni has thoroughly shuffled his cards twice at the tournament, making five changes after the opener against the Dutch, and a further two for the France clash. Only Buffon, Christian Panucci, Zambrotta, Pirlo and Toni have started all three matches. Donadoni will be forced to re-think his line-up again for the quarter-final, as playmaker Andrea Pirlo and enforcer Gennaro Gattuso collected second yellow cards and will be banned. "Obviously that'll hit us hard, but I have faith in all my players. We have good alternatives on the bench," Donadoni argued.

In the last eight, the FIFA World Cup holders are obliged to leave their Swiss base for Vienna, where they meet Spain on Sunday evening at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion. "A lot of people stopped believing in us, but we've shown them," De Rossi reacted passionately after Tuesday's match. "It's very gratifying and a terrific feeling. But Spain are a great side and they'll definitely make it extremely difficult for us."

The hordes in Zurich late on Tuesday evening were patently not yet ready to contemplate the Spanish threat, celebrating as only the Tifosi can until the night once again turned to day.