A well-oiled Croatia forced Italy on the defensive and rallied to a 1-1 draw in an exciting Group C encounter on Thursday, leaving the former world champions sweating over qualification.
Forward Mario Mandzukic scored his third goal in two matches to cap Croatia's flowing attacks and cancel out a sublime first-half free-kick by Italian playmaker Andrea Pirlo that raised hopes of victory but left qualification hopes hanging in a group also containing world and Euro champions Spain.
The draw put Croatia on top of the tough group and left Italy, who have won fresh fans for their flowing game, needing to defeat Republic of Ireland to keep quarterfinal hopes alive. Most of Italy’s early chances fell to Mario Balotelli, the temperamental striker somehow finding room inside the Croatian penalty area but not cashing in, despite forcing goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa into action.Modest record
Italy, who had never beaten Croatia since the collapse of the erstwhile Yugoslavia and had lost three of their five meetings, almost went ahead in the 11th minute but Claudio Marchisio drove narrowly over.
Croatia, 2-1 winners over the Republic of Ireland, gradually began pressing down the flanks and Dario Srna’s measured delivery from the right was plucked by Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon at the near post. Italy, who produced a thrilling 1-1 draw with defending champions Spain, were superior in their attacks with forward Antonio Cassano the provider working in tandem with Balotelli but opportunities were missed time and again.
In the 37th minute, Marchisio was again twice denied by Pletikosa from very close. But the pressure finally told and the Croatia defence cracked. Croatia conceded a free-kick to the left of the penalty area.
Playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who set up the equaliser against Spain with magical play, produced a stunning effort that glanced off a defender’s head in the wall and beat the diving Pletikosa at the near post. The 33-year-old Italian linchpin is coming off a great season with Serie A champions Juventus.
Cassano almost doubled the lead with a near-post header before half-time and Mandzukic almost equalised with a stinging drive. Luka Modric forced Buffon to make a save and then shot over the bar as Croatia chased the equaliser after resumption. Italy weathered attacks but Croatia’s enterprise bore fruit in the 72nd minute when Ivan Strinic’s cross from the left fell to an unmarked Mandzukic, who lashed in from close for his third goal of the tournament, the shot going in off the near post.