Gdansk, Poland – Ireland midfielder Keith Andrews admitted his side had been chasing Spanish “shadows” as the defending European champions hammered the Irish at Euro 2012.
Chelsea striker Fernando Torres confirmed his return to form with two clinically-taken goals against the Irish in a 4-0 rout as Giovanni Trapattoni's team assumed the unwanted mantle of becoming the first side to exit the tournament.
Torres, whose goal in the Euro 2008 final against Germany gave Spain the title, needed less than four minutes to open the scoring at Arena Gdansk and with 20 shots on target, Spain rarely let up against the Irish.
Manchester City's David Silva and Barcelona's Cesc Fabregas also scored as Vicente del Bosque's world and European champions threw down a marker.
“Without a shadow of doubt, this is the best team we have ever played,” said Andrews, who faces an uncertain future having been released by West Bromwich Albion at the end of last season.
“The vast majority of the time, we were chasing shadows.
“We couldn't get near them, they were just a fantastic side.
“It is just so really disappointing.
“We said it before the game, let's learn our lessons but we shot ourselves in the foot again with silly goals.
“We didn't learn but in fairness they are just such a top side.
“Any lapse in concentration and they're going to hurt you.”
In their final game, Ireland play Italy in Poznan on Monday purely for pride, while the Italians – who wll face former boss Giovanni Trapattoni – still have a slim chance of qualifying if they beat the Irish and hope there is a winner in Spain's meeting with Croatia in Gdansk.
Irish fans vastly outnumbered the Spanish making up roughly half the 39,000 spectators and Andrews said Ireland will be playing for their pride and supporters against the Italians.
“You know they've come and travelled in their thousands,” said the 31-year-old.
“It's incredible. With seven or eight minutes to go, all you could hear was the Ireland fans and we were losing three or four-nil.”
“They are an absolute credit to the country and unfortunately we haven't been able to give them what they deserve.”
Leicester City defender Sean St Ledger said he had personally been given a master-class by the Spaniards on a night when only a good performance from Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given kept the score to 4-0.
“They're the best side I've ever played against and the best I think I will play against,” said the 27-year-old.
“They were well organised, they knew what we were all about, they have got fight, they have got spirit – that's the reason they are world and European champions.”
Striker Jon Walters said Ireland now must beat Italy to leave with their heads held high.
“You've got to pick yourselves up and go for a bit of pride against Italy now,” said the 28-year-old.
“We don't want to come out of the tournament with nothing.” – Sapa-AFP