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Perspectives can dramatically change in life, even in a short amount of time. Whereas the 1-1 draw against Spain could be satisfying enough for Italy, the same result in the Poznan encounter with Croatia surely left the Azzurri with bitterness, for they were the better side for more than a hour.
Both managers decided to confirm the same lineups fielded last Sunday. Surprise surrounded the Italian side as manager Cesare Prandelli left Antonio Di Natale on the bench and kept on fielding Mario Balotelli, despite criticism by the Italian press about his performance.
Notwithstanding, it was Manchester City flamboyant striker to give the Azzurri the first chance after just two minutes. Having trapped the ball on a cross, he turned immediately but did not centre the target. Later on, it was Claudio Marchisio to miss the opener for inches with a dazzling drive from the edge which ended just over the bar. Then, Balotelli struck again, his shot being deflected by goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.
This series of scoring opportunities clearly revealed the fluidity and the vivacity of Italy, opposed to surprisingly workmanlike Croatia. The Balkans created the biggest dangers in just a couple of situations, with Nikica Jelavić claiming for a penalty kick, as he fell down during a contrast with Giorgio Chiellini, and Everton striker himself not capitalising a nice delivery by Ivan Rakitić.
Overwhelming Azzurri finally managed to score six minutes ahead of stoppage time, following several chances wasted because of lack of precision or Pletikosa. The goalie saved twice on a close attempt by Marchisio, but could not deal with a superb free kick by Andrea Pirlo, certainly the most inspired player on the Italian side.
Unusually defensive and lacklustre in the first half, the Croatians displayed a more offensive approach and shifted to a 4-3-3 formation. This was epitomised by the two corner kicks taken in short time, more than the amount earned throughout the entire first half. Now more urged, Italy defence comfortably protected the one-goal advantage, although waning in attacking, for 25 mins.
It was then that Mario Mandžukić equalised from close range, as Chiellini failed to touch the ball on a long pass by Ivan Strinić. The Croatian striker equalled another Mario, Germany’s Gomez, as leading scorer of the tournament with three goals in two matches. Galvanised by the goal, the Croatians eventually tried to accomplish their comeback and insisted on the flanks.
Like in the match against Spain, Italy ended with newly-entered Antonio Di Natale and Sebastian Giovinco as attacking duo. Towered by physically superior Croatian defenders, though, the two tiny strikers did not manage to give the victory, which now becomes a categorical imperative in the last match against Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland. Differently, Croatia are still topping Group C but to ensure qualification for the knockout stage they will probably have not to lose to Spain.
Perhaps, and depending on what the Spaniards will do against Ireland, it might end like in 2004, with Italy eliminated at the group stage despite their five points as Denmark and Sweden tied among them.
SportsUN Man of the Match: Andrea Pirlo (ITA).
Italy 1-1 Croatia (1-0 HT)
Italy (3-5-2): Buffon – Bonucci, De Rossi, Chiellini – Maggio, Marchisio, Pirlo, Motta (62 Montolivo), Giaccherini – Cassano (83 Giovinco), Balotelli (69 Di Natale). Manager: Cesare Prandelli.
Croatia (4-4-2): Pletikosa – Srna, Ćorluka, Schildenfeld, Strinić – Rakitić, Vukojević, Modrić, Perišić (67 Pranjić) – Jelavić (83 Eduardo), Mandžukić (90 + 4 Kranjčar). Manager: Slaven Bilić.
Referee: Howard Webb (ENG).
Goals: 39 Pirlo, 72 Mandžukić.
Notes: additional time 1 and 5. Corner kicks: 6-3.
Bookings: 56 Motta, 80 Montolivo, 85 Schildenfeld.