Group C
Italy 1-1 Croatia



Italy's mercurial midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo perfected his free-kick technique with a mesmirising effort to give his country the lead



By Adam Higgins
Chief Football Editor from City Stadium, Poznan 

Croatia came from behind to secure a vital 1-1 draw with Italy at Euro 2012 to set up an exciting final round of matches in Group C.

Andrea Pirlo gave the Azzurri a deserved lead towards the end of the first half with a sumptuous free kick from the edge of the box, but goalscoring revelation Mario Mandzukic earned his side a point late on. Both sides took to the field of play with the same line-ups from their first matches of the tournament, despite question marks hanging over the likes of Mario Balotelli- who came into the encounter with a yellow card incurred in the 1-1 draw with Spain- but he kept his place ahead of Udinese forward Antonio Di Natale as the Italians kept the same team.

Meanwhile, Croatia's convincing
3-1 success over the Republic of Ireland meant their preparations for the match were far less complicated with boss Slaven Bilic naming an unchanged line-up therefore their top goalscorer in qualifying Niko Kranjcar, with four goals, was left out.

The game was a frenetic affair from the word go. The Azzurri, seemingly on a high from their impressive display against the reigning European champions, showed their intent early on as they once more looked to attack their opponents on the break; Christian Maggio, Pirlo and Antonio Cassano all proved important outlets once more.

Balotelli struck first inside the first three minutes, seeing a shot on the edge of the box whistle just wide of the target, but the Croats were keen to prove their worth in the encounter. Mandzukic, Sunday's hero with a pair of goals to his name, was actively involved in an ongoing duel with Giorgio Chiellini.



Croatia are now unbeaten in the six matches they have played against Italy since gaining independence in 1991-  three wins and three draws.


The Manchester City striker did not stop running throughout the half, always looking to find space for his team-mates to pick out a pass - Pirlo's delightful 50-yard through ball a highlight. And his encouraging link-up play with Cassano almost gave way to a goal, if not for Stipe Pletikosa's stop.

Croatia used their front pairing of Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic to launch attacks. The Everton striker, in a rich vein of form, posed the Azzurri back-line a problem or two as he kept Gianluigi Buffon on his toes with a couple of headed efforts.

Italy began to mix their play up, with Balotelli's hard work and Cassano's slick touches in advanced areas proving troublesome for the Croatian defence to keep up with. The AC Milan striker pounced on a raking ball and jinked his way into the box but dragged his strike wide of Pletikosa's goal.

Wave after wave of Nazionale attacks flowed forward, despite the occasional Croatian burst down the left flank, with Luka Modric embroiled in a fascinating battle with Thiago Motta.

Claudio Marchisio, who came close with a thunderous strike earlier in the half, ought to have opened the scoring on 37 minutes. Juventus team-mate Pirlo, who begun to pull the strings in midfield, released his colleague, but he could not beat Pletikosa from close range, despite getting two bites of the cherry. The Croats felt that they had a strong case for a penalty when Everton's Jelavic grappled with Chiellini but the assistant referee on the far side Mike Mullarkey flagged on the far side for a free-kick to Italy judging that the forward had fouled the defender first.



Both teams were knocked out of Euro 2008 four years ago at the quarter-final stage on penalties- Croatia were beaten by Turkey while Italy lost out to Spain.


But Italy took a deserved lead two minutes later when a free-kick on the edge of the box won by Balotelli was curled in magnificently by Juventus playmaker Pirlo, who claimed his 10th goal in Italy colours. It proved a fitting end to a fluid half of football in Poznan.

Croatia coach Slaven Bilic would have been understandably frustrated with his side's lethargic showing, and it appeared that his half-time team talk worked wonders. Nikica Jelavic, the thorn in Chiellini's side throughout the opening stages of the match, grew in stature as the game wore on.

Modric began to break through the shackles once imposed on him as the Croatians set up camp in the Italians' half, forcing their opponents to defend deeper and deeper. The impact of the Azzurri's most influential stars had died down considerably, meaning there could be only one outcome.

Mandzukic profited from Chiellini's misjudgment in the box from a cross to collect the ball at the far post and fire past Buffon off the post for a crucial equaliser with eighteen minutes left on the clock. It appeared the Croats had found the initiative to go on and emerge victorious.

However, a subdued final ten minutes was played out with Italy again struggling to recapture their earlier fluency, despite the introductions of Antonio Di Natale- who netted in their last encounter against the world champions- and Sebastian Giovinco from the substitutes bench. For Croatia, they leave with a crucial point and go into their encounter with Spain next week, who thrashed the Republic of Ireland 4-0 in the day's later game, on a high.


ANALYSIS:  Italy 1-1 Croatia
Adam Higgins- Chief Football Editor reporting in Poznan

"If it was a good flowing game of football with lots of action and it did produce a good game for the neutral observers- the only real surprise is that there were only two goals scored because it appeared after just ten minutes that it was going to be high scoring. I felt as though the match was going to be a draw which was certainly what both sides just about deserved. Pirlo was on top of his game for the Italians and he has always had the ability to control matches with his great awareness and precise passing. Croatia were better in the second half but I thought it was finely balanced with a not a lot to choose between both sides. They are certainly not going to make it easy for Spain to finish top of the group and now both will be confident going into their third games of picking up wins." 





Thursday 14th June                      UEFA Euro 2012: Poland & Ukraine                   Group C                 City Stadium, Poznan 

Italy 1-1 Croatia                                                KO 5pm                    Live on BBC1/HD                   (HT 1-0)

Pirlo 39     Mandzukic 72 






1 Gianluca Buffon (C)-  7/10  Didn't have a great deal to do, the experienced stopper produced a routine sort of performance really- safe handling from crosses- everything you would expect from Buffon really.  

3 Giorgio Chiellini-  6.5/10  Had a difficult match against the two mobile and robust Croatian centre-forwards struggling to cope- getting himself tied in knots at times while could have conceded a penalty in the first half.  

16 Danielle De Rossi-  7.5/10  Looks just as good in central defence as he does in midfield. After a man of the match display against Spain, he was the rock of the three-man backline giving Jelavic and Mandzukic a big obstacle to beat.  

19 Leonardo Bonucci-  7/10  Did everything that you would ask from a central defender- strong in the tackle, didn't over-commit himself and put in some timely interventions.  

8 Claudio Marchisio-  7.5/10  A very good player in the making here whereby he is showing his ability on the international stage- kept his passing crisp and speedy around midfield. His tackling was as good as anybody else on the pitch. 

13 Emanuele Gianccherini-  6.5/10  Considering this was only his second cap for the country, he looks as though he has been here for ages. Confident in possession, ran forward at will with the ball at his feet, distributed well and a nice cohesive rhythm to his play.  

21 Andrea Pirlo-  8.5/10  Was the best player on the park- a wise midfielder who knows always knows what the correct option is, doesn't panic and has a footballing brain. His free-kick speaks for itself.  

5 Thiago Motta-  6/10  A poor match overall for the PSG man who couldn't get in tune with the pace of the game from the first minute. Sloppy in possession, booked and lasted about an hour.  

2 Christian Maggio-  6.5/10  Another one whose true position hasn't been decided yet but the left sided midfield role is one that he is looking comfortable in- cannot take on players well though and lost his footing once or twice when in the crucial moment. 

10 Antonio Cassano-  7/10  Tried to link up with team-mates at the first opportunity embodying a partnership with the enigmatic Balotelli- put in a mature performance showing that his true form is starting to re-emerge. 

9 Mario Balotelli-  7.5/10   Started the game well and was always lively and causing problems- smartly won the free-kick for the goal by Pirlo and will be happy with his contribution. Could have had one or two goals himself on another day.



Substitutes bench:-  
12 Sirigu (GK), 14 De Sanctis (GK), 4 Ogbonna, 6 Balzaretti, 7 Abate, 11 Di Natale, 15 Barzagli, 17 Borini, 18 Montolivo, 20 Giovinco, 22 Diamanti, 23 Nocerino. 


Subs used:     

Montolivo (for Thiago Motta-  62 mins)-  3.5/10  Got himself booked shortly after being introduced from referee Howard Webb for a bad foul- his discipline wasn't up to scratch but added more determination and steel to midfield for Italy.   

Di Natale (for Balotelli-  69 mins)-  2.5/10  Couldn't make the sort of immediate and positive impact that he so admiringly acquired against the Spaniards but made his presence felt in a different way to Corluka and Schildenfeld. 

Giovinco (for Cassano-  83 mins)-  1.5/10  The Juventus man didn't look interested and didn't show the hunger that substitutes should have when trying to prove why they should have started the game. 


Booked:         Thiago Motta (56), Montolivo (80)

Sent-off:         None






1 Stipe Pletikosa-  7.5/10  The ex Spurs goalkeeper used all of his experience in terms of his positioning in his goalarea and dealt with everything assuringly. Couldn't do a lot about the Pirlo free-kick.

11 Darjo Srna (C)-  7/10  The midfielder at full-back is something which managers always worry about but not when the Croatian skipper is there. Has taken to the position well and most importantly didn't roam around the pitch- he stayed in the role.

5 Vedran Corluka-  7/10  Much better than the Ireland game but still looked a bit shaky against the menacing Balotelli and forward thinking Cassano in the hole.

13 Gordon Schildenfeld-  6.5/10  Booked in the second half, again made slight improvements from the first match in terms of his positioning and reading of the game but not enough to be totally convinced that he is a top quality central defender.

2 Ivan Strinic-  7.5/10  The left-back loved to get forward which was demonstrated in his ability to dig out a searching cross for Mandzukic for the Croatia equaliser.

8 Ognjen Vukojevic-  8/10  Had a very good game, quietly went about his business always making himself available and offering himself for team-mates as an option.

7 Ivan Rakitic-  7.5/10  Not a bad game, looked to come inside to try to get Modric on the ball while he always looked to retain possession although that was mainly going backwards rather than forwards.

10 Luka Modric-  7/10  Couldn't find the pockets of space that he usually finds, didn't have room to work in while his team-mates couldn't get the ball into his feet- outshone by the ageing Pirlo.

20 Ivan Perisic-  6.5/10  Getting a grip on the game early on is important for players- settle into the early momentum with the adrenalin pumping. This normally comes as second nature to Perisic but didn't today- was substituted after half-time.

17 Mario Mandzukic-  7.5/10  Becoming one of the surprise players of the tournament, nobody had heard of him before really but he put in another good shift adding a goal as well. Attracting some interest already.  

9 Nikica Jelavic-  7/10  Felt he should have had a penalty in first half, his goalscoring exploits weren't quite as sharp as they have been over the last few months but is entitled to have one off game- this certainly being it.


Substitutes bench:-
12 Kelava (GK), 23 Subasic (GK), 3 Simunic, 4 Buljat, 15 Vrsaljko, 21 Vida, 6 Pranjic, 14 Badelj, 16 Dujmovic, 19 Kranjcar, 18 Kalinic, 22 Eduardo Da Silva.

Subs used:

Pranjic (for Perisic-  68 mins)-  2.5/10  The Bayern Munich player looked promising down the left showing why a club of that stature bought him with his direct running- faded out in the final minutes though.

Eduardo Da Silva (for Jelavic-  83 mins)-  1.5/10  Had longer than he did against Ireland on the pitch but barely had enough minutes to get a feel for the match. Met one cross with a flick-on but nothing more to comment.

Kranjcar (for Mandzukic-  90 mins)-  0.5/10  Brought on for a brief cameo- only managed one or two touches of the ball.

Booked:       Schildenfeld (83)

Sent-off:         None 

My Man of the Match:    Andrea Pirlo (Italy)- Rating 8.5/10

My Poorest Performer of the Match:    Thiago Motta (Italy)- Rating 6/10  



Referee: Howard Webb MBE (England)- 8.5/10
Attendance: 37,096 



Match Facts:

Possession: Italy- 49%                Croatia- 51%

Shots at goal: Italy- 15                  Croatia- 9

Shots on target: Italy- 7                  Croatia- 6

Shots off target: Italy- 8                  Croatia- 3

Corners: Italy- 6                       Croatia- 3

Fouls: Italy- 12                    Croatia- 20

Offsides: Italy- 3                    Croatia- 1

Assists: Italy- 1 (Balotelli)                 Croatia- 1 (Strinic)





Italy head coach Cesar Prandelli:  "Of course you are a bit bitter because when a side plays football, creates a lot of goalscoring chances, they need to put a game to bed, to kill off the game. You need to be more clinical in front of goal. There is a drop in our level at the 60th minute. In terms of the two games, at that stage of the game we lack fresh legs. I don't know what the future will hold if we don't try and change. We must have courage to move on and take the game to the opposition. In Italy we have imagination and the desire to make things happen. We want to be creative."

Croatia head coach Slaven Bilic:  "I don't agree with coaches who don't comment on referees. This is very important for my job. There was also a foul before the Italy free-kick from which Pirlo scored. I didn't like the referee's performance. He was not good for the Croatian team. I'm sure that was a clear penalty on Jelavic. He was a referee who helped the Italian team a lot. I'm really satisfied we've got four points from the two games. It could be even better but four points is optimal, realistic and now we have a real chance to go through."


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