By NEIL CUSTIS
MARIO BALOTELLI served up a moment of magic and mayhem as Italy booked their place in the quarter-finals.
The colourful Manchester City striker started on the Azzurri bench but entered the fray determined to prove a point.
And when a 90th-minute corner came over, he did just that.
John O’Shea was tight on him, pushing into his back and holding his shirt — but it was not enough to stop the man they call Super Mario.
Falling over and with his back to goal, Balotelli executed a superb volley that left keeper Shay Given with absolutely no chance.
Of course it would not be Balotelli if some sort of histrionics did not follow.
He ‘celebrated’ by walking away head down, the victim — evoking memories of his ‘Why always me?’ T-shirt jibe from last season.
But suddenly he grew angry and launched a verbal volley in the direction of manager Cesare Prandelli.
It was stifled only by quick-thinking team-mate Leonardo Bonucci, who clamped his hand around Balotelli’s mouth.
In the end there were three of them trying to keep him calm.
Even at the final whistle, as Balotelli walked towards the bench, Gianluigi Buffon sensed trouble and stopped him in his tracks.
The 34-year-old keeper quickly hugged the tempestuous 21-year-old and offered some words of advice.
The whole incident summed up Balotelli. He has all the skill in the world but loves to make life difficult for himself.
He had hardly done much in the first two games to justify his place in the third.
Subbed in the 56th minute against Spain and 69th against Croatia.
He had also been suffering with a knee problem.
Yet he still felt it was an injustice to be on the bench, not coming on until the 74th minute.
Prandelli said afterwards that Balotelli needed to start acting more like a team player rather than thinking only of himself.
How many times could that have been said of him with City last season, with boss Roberto Mancini claiming he was simply not a player he could trust.
Balotelli could be a star of the tournament but we all know there is an equal chance of him going home in disgrace.
Ireland, meanwhile, are heading home with little to be proud of — pointless, having conceded nine goals and scored just one.
Striker Robbie Keane said: “It’s a shame the team has not performed as well as we can and we didn’t get a result for the fans, as they have been fantastic for the three games.
“If anyone deserves it, they do. We played well without creating too many chances either and are extremely disappointed not to get something out of the group.
“The lads are down but we have been beaten by better teams.
“It was set-pieces again. That’s been the same for the last few games. It’s one of those things as, in previous games, we have been solid in that department.”
Asked whether it was the end of the road for him and some of his team-mates, 31-year-old Keane added: “We’ll have to see.”
Republic manager and proud Italian Giovanni Trapattoni was a tad more positive after ending with a gutsy display.
He said: “We played much better than against Spain and Croatia.
“We played with more personality, ability and commitment.”
Led by Damien Duff, who was collecting his 100th cap, the Irish had Italy worried for a tense period during the second half too.
But for all the corners, crosses and long balls they only made Buffon work once — from a Keith Andrews drilled shot on 78 minutes.
At least they managed to get past the fourth minute without conceding, unlike in the first two games.
It was the 36th minute this time but another nightmare moment for Given.
He spilled an Antonio Cassano shot that was straight at him to concede a corner.
Andrea Pirlo swung it over and Cassano got in a near-post header which Given got a hand to but could only help in.
Ireland stuck at it but Italy’s superior quality was in evidence compared to their blood and thunder.
A thunder that erupted in Andrews who got a second yellow — for dissent — and a red in the 89th minute.
He gave the ref a blast on the way off too and booted the ball into the crowd.
Balotelli’s moment of magic would confound the misery.
A tournament to forget for Ireland but it could still be one to remember for Italy and Balotelli, who could yet face England in the last eight.
You sense it really is up to him.