SoccerMatch Report

Italy equalise in last minute to leave Croatia facing cruel exit

Zaccagni’s spectacular strike in Leipzig could result in Luka Modric’s final major championship game

Croatia's midfielder Luka Modric reacts to their probable championship exit. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty
Group B: Croatia 1 Italy 1

Italy advanced to the second round of Euro 2024 after a spectacular strike from Mattia Zaccagni equalised against Croatia in the 94th minute in Leipzig.

Croatia had led through Luka Modric’s 55th-minute goal and their fans had turned the last half-hour into a carnival of – in the event, premature – Croatian celebration.

The Italians had hardly created a clear chance in the second half, until centre-back Riccardo Calafiori strode forward and passed left to Zaccagni, running into the left side of the box and mysteriously unmarked.

The Lazio forward, who had only been on the pitch 10 minutes, opened his body out and curled the ball across Dominik Livakovic and inside the far post to set off delirium among the Italian fans who seemed to have given up hope.


Without that equalising goal, a defeat would have left Italy hanging on to see if they could finish as one of the best third-place teams.

But a draw was no good to Croatia, who had only one point on the board from the first two matches. For the second time in consecutive games they had conceded a goal after 94 minutes to throw away a winning position; now it meant they had gone from qualification to almost-certain elimination. For Croatia to qualify, England will need to thrash Slovenia by four goals at a minimum, and still other results need to go Croatia’s way. If this is to be the last Luka Modric plays at an international tournament, he went out in the cruellest way.

Both Italy and Croatia had lost to Spain, who topped this group easily, but Italy’s 1-0 defeat had triggered a convulsion of national soul-searching.

Everyone agreed that Italy had taken an awful beating, but pundits differed in their analysis of who or what was to blame.

The former Inter coach Andrea Stramaccioni pointed the finger at coach Luciano Spalletti, claiming the performance was defined by the cowardly decision to take off Federico Chiesa: “an enormous step back, a true failure of the Spalletti project.”

Fabio Capello took a wider, structural view, blaming the shortcomings of the Italian football culture compared to the Spanish: “Our country does not cultivate quality any more ... the youth systems teach tactics, but not technique.”

Yet for 1982 World Cup winner Beppe Bergomi, it was Italy’s failure to embrace their traditional football culture that had cost them. They should have recognised that Spain were superior, abandoned any pretence of trying to match them in an open game and played catenaccio instead. “We were not humble enough, we did not suffer enough,” etc.

Arrigo Sacchi’s critique was almost anthropological: “This was an organised collective against a group of players wandering around the pitch. Italy seemed bewildered, almost intimidated, and this attitude is the result of a mentality that Italians have always carried inside themselves. We do not know how to reason as a collective, we go our own way, we are individualists.” When the opponent attacks and you don’t know how to counter, “it’s normal to fall into total darkness.” And Gareth Southgate thinks he’s got problems.

Former Italian international football players and Italy's delegation head Gianluigi Buffon celebrates after Zaccagni scored his team's equaliser. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty

Unable to change either the cultural baggage or the technical level of his players at short notice, Spalletti changed tactics, switching from 4-3-3 to 3-5-2 and dropping Chiesa, Gianluca Scamacca, and David Frattesi for Giacomo Raspadori, Mateo Retegui and Matteo Darmian.

The changes looked designed to ensure defensive security. Italy’s compact midfield was blocking Croatia through the centre and much of the first half of the first half consisted of Croatia’s defenders playing the ball across the pitch and then back again.

But Italy, by defending well, soon found they started to attack well. Their aggressive pressing was forcing Croatia further and further back and midway through the first half Italy began to generate a steady trickle of chances.

The best of these came when Barella’s diagonal cross to the far post presented Alessandro Bastoni with a free header, but the centre-back – who scored Italy’s equaliser against Albania in their first game – headed straight at Livakovic.

Did that miss send those Italian individualists into a fatalist doom spiral? Bastoni’s agonised reaction to the miss told you he felt it was a significant moment. If you miss chances like that, you tend to pay. Sure enough, 10 minutes into the second half, Croatia got the break they were looking for.

Kramaric’s ball into the box hit the outstretched hand of half-time substitute Davide Frattesi, and Croatian after a VAR intervention, had a penalty. Modric stood over the ball. It had not been a classic Modric performance. A minute earlier he’d tried one of his outside-foot passes through the defence but got it all wrong and it bounced harmlessly through to Donnarumma. Now he faced the huge Italian keeper from 12 yards. The low shot went to Donnarumma’s left but the keeper guessed right and palmed it away.

The Italians at the far end of the ground celebrated, but Croatia swiftly won it back and crossed from the right.

Ante Budemir headed goalwards and Donnarumma again saved brilliantly but the rebound fell to Modric six yards out, and Croatia’s captain smacked it joyfully into the roof of the net.

The Croatian fans celebrated with songs and flares and smoke and sent beer flying through the air from the upper tiers. The Italian crowd seemed to have fallen into total darkness. There was still half an hour to play, but both sets of fans seemed to feel that the result had already been decided.

Italy’s gameplan no longer made sense against opponents who did not need to score and were happy to spoil and waste time. Spalletti threw on Chiesa, his most dangerous individualist, to no effect. Then Scamacca went on to form a double big-man pairing up top. Italy were going to go long – a moment of indignity for Spalletti. But then, when all seemed lost, Calafiori found Zaccagni. Fatalism is for idiots. Football is possibility. Italy play Switzerland in Berlin in the second round on Saturday.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer