Croatia rallies to earn draw against Italy

Croatia forward Mario Mandzukic scored a second-half goal to secure a 1-1 draw with Italy Thursday at the European championship in Poznan, Poland.

Andrea Pirlo, Mario Mandzukic score game's only goals

Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic celebrates his tournament-tying third goal against Italy Thursday at the European championship in Poznan, Poland. (Antonio Calanni/Associated Press)

Croatia forward Mario Mandzukic scored a second-half goal to secure a 1-1 draw with Italy Thursday at the European championship in Poznan, Poland.

Midfielder Andrea Pirlo opened the scoring for Italy in the game’s 39th minute.

Main storyline

The match really was a tale of two halves.

The Italians dominated the first half, controlling ball possession and getting the bulk of the scoring chances.

Croatia picked up its play in the second, putting more pressure on the Italian defence.

In the end, the match left Italy frustrated and Croatia leading Group C.

Overall, the Italians played a strong game but are still searching for their first victory over Euro 2012. Italy, settling for two draws to this point, has only registered one win in its last 10 international matches.

Prior to Croatia’s Group C matchup against Italy, coach Slaven Bilic admitted his team’s top priority would be a way to stop Pirlo.

The 33-year-old midfielder was terrific throughout the 1-1 draw against Spain in the opener and set up the team’s only goal that allowed Antonio Di Natale to give Italy a short-lived lead.

The plan was to have Pirlo shadowed, preventing him space whenever he touched the ball.

Of course, you can never account for set plays when implementing such a strategy.

And that’s where Pirlo hurt the Croatians.

Pirlo struck late in the first half, curling a perfect free kick over the wall and inside the near post. Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa managed to get his hand on the ball but couldn’t prevent the goal.

Moments before Pirlo’s tally, Pletikosa made two sensational saves off midfielder Claudio Marchisio.

It was a different Croatia team that began the second half, one that consistently pressured the Italian defence yet failed to seriously challenge goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon — until the 72nd minute.

That’s when forward Mario Mandzukic, Croatia’s best offensive player, made his mark. After controlling a beautiful deep cross from Ivan Strinic, Mandzukic buried his tournament-tying third goal off the post — equaling Germany’s Mario Gomez and Russian Alan Dzagoev.

This was a lost opportunity for Italy. Instead of continuing their attack in the second half the Italians decided to sit back and they paid dearly for it.

Despite the disappointing draw, the Italians need to refocus their attention to Ireland if they want to avoid a second consecutive embarrassing early exit at a major international event.

What this result means

  • Croatia leads Group C with four points ahead of its match against the defending Euro champions from Spain. Italy, meanwhile, must find a way to get a victory over Ireland to stay in quarter-final contention.

Man of the match

  • Pirlo and Mandzukic both deserve this honour. Pirlo netted his 10th international goal with that deft free kick in the first half. Mandzukic was the most dangerous offensive player on either side in the second half. He scored a timely goal and was a threat whenever he was around Italy’s penalty area.

The Italian perspective

  • "If you can't finish it off, of course you're going to have regrets. I am still convinced we can go through, but we have certainly wasted an opportunity here." — Italy coach Cesare Prandelli

The Croatian perspective

"Probably the whole country was not expecting this. We have a really good chance of going through." — Croatia coach Slaven Bilic

With files from The Associated Press