Mandzukic throws Croatians a lifeline
GROUP C ITALY 1 CROATIA 1:IN THE immediate aftermath of Italy’s 1-1 draw with Croatia in Poznan last night, Italian minds went back to Portugal 2004. Given last night’s Group C results, a 2-2 draw between Spain and Croatia will be enough to see both sides progress to the quarter-finals at the expense of Italy.
Under Uefa rules, at that stage, it is the head-to-head count and not goal difference nor goals scored that takes priority when it comes to finalising the group standings.
Thus a 2-2 draw between Spain and Croatia counts for more than the respective 1-1 draws registered by both sides against Italy. This is a rerun of the situation which saw Sweden and Denmark progress at the expense of Italy, after a 2-2 draw in 2004.
Whilst most critics would argue it is impossible to envisage a side such as the current European Champions and World Cup winners Spain involved in any such calculations, that did not stop the conspiracy theorists last night.
More realistically, however, Italy should really be kicking themselves for not wrapping up a game they had dominated for long periods last night.
Uefa man of the match, Italian playmaker Andrea Pirlo, sounded the charge with worrying words for Ireland after the game.
After acknowledging Italy had allowed Croatia back into this match, Pirlo said ominously: “Maybe we dropped too deep in the second half and we struggled a bit but the good thing is that we still have an important game to win against Ireland on Monday.”
Pirlo’s analysis of the game was shared by his coach, Cesare Prandelli, who made no secret of his belief that Italy had let this one slip away when conceding a 72nd minute equaliser to Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic.
That reply to Pirlo’s majestically struck 39th minute free kick left Prandelli very disappointed: “Early in the second half, we were playing well, we were on top and that is the moment when you have got to wrap up the game . . we definitely deserved to win this game.
“They were the physically stronger side but we played much better . . I’m not angry with my players but I am disappointed, yes.
“Half a chance, a cross comes in and that changes everything. But we’re still alive.”
However, the Croatians were never out of the contest and their coach Slaven Bilic had a point when arguing his side had been denied a clear penalty in only the 18th minute when Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini upended Nikica Jelavic in the area.
It was always likely this game would be one for the purists, given the traditions of two nations whose footballing skills have always been more about craft and cunning than physical brawn.
Both sides have genuine strikers in Balotelli and Jelavic, who in turn are prompted by two superb midfield schemers in Pirlo and Croatia’s Luka Modric.
Fittingly, it was the splendid Pirlo who broke the deadlock with a brilliantly struck 39th minute free-kick which gave Pletikosa little chance. Analysing the match afterwards, the former Croatian great, striker Davor Suker said: “Look I am Croatian and I want Croatia to win but I have to say in all honesty that the best player on the pitch tonight was Pirlo”.
Suker had a point. Not only did Pirlo score the Italian goal but he ran the Italian midfield show with imperious control. His free-kick goal seemed little more than Italy deserved following a masterful first half effort. At half-time Italy were looking quite comfortable with their 1-0 advantage. That, however, was to underestimate Croatia’s ability to reshape itself.
Bilic said: “When you have a strong team like Italy, it is not easy but we waited for our chance. In the first half, they overwhelmed us a bit but we managed to regroup. We were the better team in the second half and came close to winning.
“I’m very satisfied with my players . . . don’t want to talk about our next match with Spain, all I will say is that we are in a good position with four points.”
Italy – Montolivo for Motta (62 mins); Di Natale for Balotelli (69); Giovinco for Cassano (83).
Croatia – Pranjic for Perisic (68 mins); da Silva for Jelavic (83); Kranjcar for Mandzukic (90+4).
Italy – Pirlo 39.
Croatia – Mandzukic 72.
Italy – Motta, Montolivo.
Croatia – Schildenfeld.
REFEREEHoward Webb (England).
TOURNAMENT FORMAT: Knockout stages
If two or more teams are equal on points on completion of the group matches, the following criteria are applied, in the order given; to determine the rankings . .
a) higher number of points obtained in the matches among the teams in question;
b) superior goal difference in the matches among the teams in question (if more than two teams finish equal on points);
c) higher number of goals scored in the matches among the teams in question (if more than two teams finish equal on points);
d) superior goal difference in all the group matches;
e) higher number of goals scored in all the group matches.