Mario Mandzukic of Croatia makes sure Italy must do it hard way
Italy 1 Croatia 1
Slaven Bilic's first game in Poznan saw him kissing a fan who had run on to the pitch, a gesture that carried an air of Brian Clough about it. Despite the fact that his second visit here, for a draw against Italy, actually gave a better result than that 3-1 win over Ireland, Croatia's manager ended the night with a snarl, directed at Howard Webb.
Bilic thought the Yorkshire referee should have awarded Croatia a first-half penalty when Nikica Jelavic fell as he tangled with Giorgio Chiellini. The whole Croatian bench ran to the touchline as Webb approached the scene to award a free-kick to Italy.
"I am not objective," said Bilic with considerable understatement. "But I am sure it was a pure penalty and the free-kick from which the Italians scored was not a foul. I didn't like Webb's performance. To me, he was a referee who was not good for Croatia."
Bilic had predicted that, should his side break out of their group, they might run wild in the tournament and they are now very close. In the immediate aftermath of a second match in which the Italians have lost a lead, it occurred to Gianluigi Buffon that, should Croatia and Spain play out a 2-2 draw on Monday night in Gdansk, they would both go through.
In Euro 2004, a 2-2 draw between Denmark and Sweden had seen the Scandinavian nations qualify at Italy's expense. "If it happens again," the goalkeeper said, "the whole world will laugh." Buffon was assuming that Spain would beat Ireland in the night's later game, of course, but that hardly required a leap of the imagination.
To stand any chance, Italy will have to beat Ireland, something they achieved in the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup but which was beyond them in America four years later. If the result is New Jersey rather than Rome, then they will have failed to get out the group stage for the second successive tournament. It is worth pointing out that it is seven months since the Italians beat anybody.
As they had against Spain in their opener in Gdansk, Italy scored first only to be pegged back and finish the weaker side. "What you have to say is that when you are leading, playing well and have territorial supremacy, you must kill the game off because one cross, one deflection, can change everything," said the Italy coach Cesare Prandelli. "If you can't kill a team off, then you must have regrets."
Once more putting his faith in Mario Balotelli will probably be one of his regrets. Prandelli had told his most talented forward to do his talking on the pitch. If so, this was a barely audible mumble, featuring one fabulously vicious shot that sped over the bar.
Immediately afterwards, the Manchester City striker was replaced by Antonio di Natale, which on Sunday had sparked the breakthrough against Spain. Here, the substitution also triggered a goal, against rather than for the Italians, as a cross caught Chiellini out of position and Mario Mandzukic, on the six-yard line, steadied himself and drove into the roof of Buffon's net.
Mandzukic, who learned his football under Miroslav Blazevic, who managed Croatia to third place in the 1998 World Cup, had wrecked Ireland in the opening game. Now, as the flares spilled on to the pitch, he had badly damaged Italian hopes of progress. He waved his heavily tattooed arms to encourage the crowd, who, frankly, required little motivation.
In more than the scoreline this was a repeat of Italy's opening game. As they had done against Spain, Prandelli's team were good enough to exert a real measure of control early on, chiefly through Andrea Pirlo's slight frame.
Like Paul Scholes and Xavi Hernandez, the 33-year-old has scaled peaks late on in his career and this was another jewel in what has proved a glittering season. His artist's touch was evident not just for the free-kick that produced Italy's goal but for a corner Antonio Cassano headed just over.
As the best player for Rostov, one of the Russian League's poorest teams, Croatia's goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa is used to busy evenings. He had just made a superb double save from Claudio Marchisio – who had left Bilic's makeshift right-back Darijo Srna on his backside before seeing both his shots clatter into the keeper's body – when he was finally beaten.
Pirlo's free-kick curled and dipped over the four-man wall and beat Pletikosa at a near post that the wall should have protected. Italy had a one-goal lead to protect, something that once upon a time would have come as standard. That, however, is a national stereotype that appears to be lost.
Man of the match Marchisio.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee H Webb (Eng).
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