A fortunate conversion from Diego Godin proved golden for Uruguay as they booked a spot in the FIFA World Cup Round of 16 with a late 1-0 victory over ten-man Italy in Natal.
The Atletico Madrid defender rose highest from a corner with nine minutes remaining on the clock to complete a remarkable turnaround for his country, who had been beaten in their opening fixture of the tournament but now progress to a meeting with the winners of Group C.
Italy held the safety net of knowing that a draw would be enough to reach the knockout stages but the Europeans nevertheless probed with regularity in the opening exchanges.
The anxiety of La Celeste to register an early impact, meanwhile, led to the concession of numerous free-kicks – one of which Andrea Pirlo punted with power straight at goal to worry Fernando Muslera into diverting over.
The four-time world champions’ total control of the ball – more than 60 per cent possession during the first 20 minutes – ensured that chances were hugely limited for Uruguay.
When Edinson Cavani did attempt to flick dangerously at the near post from Alvaro Pereira’s rolling delivery into the area, the Paris Saint-Germain goal-getter fired off-target under pressure.
Mario Balotelli collected a needless but deserved booking for a hefty challenge on Pereira. It could have been a costly yellow card too, ruling the enigmatic forward out of the Italians’ next fixture. By way of recompense, the 23-year-old surged into open space on 27 minutes, but his focus was out of kilter when unleashing a right-footed shot from long range and the opportunity passed.
Out of the relative impasse suddenly came a Uruguay chance. An intricate one-two between Nicolas Lodeiro and Luis Suarez at close quarters released the Liverpool talisman inside unprotected Italy territory, only for Gianluigi Buffon to rush from his goalline instantaneously to smother the No9 and prevent a genuine strike.
The goalkeeper’s reactions were equally quick, and no less vital, in denying Lodeiro’s follow-up.
The frustration of the South Americans was perhaps most evident by Martin Caceres’ ambitious and futile effort to beat Buffon with a lobbed drive from midway inside his own half.
When the two teams trotted back out for the second half, Balotelli was conspicuous by his absence, Marco Parolo replacing the AC Milan superstar. For his part, Oscar Tabarez swapped Maximiliano Pereira for Lodeiro in search of a breakthrough.
Stalemate reigned again until an action-packed minute just before the hour mark. Cristian Rodriguez penetrated along the left flank, fed Suarez and collected the return pass as he sprinted into the box; once there, however, the wide-man disappointingly sliced his left-footer far wide.
The dynamic was altered further within seconds, when the referee brandished a red card in the direction of Claudio Marchisio for a high tackle on Egidio Arevalo.
Buffon served unnecessary notice of his unrivalled skills by pouncing low to his right when Suarez took control of a scramble at the edge of the Italy area and dispatched a strike towards the corner that looked a certain goal until the ‘keeper’s fine intervention.
But the veteran stopper was helpless when a Gaston Ramirez set-piece sailed in and Godin forced over the line with a clumsy combination of shoulder and back to send La Celeste through and Italy home.