Czech Republic 2 Croatia 2
Hooliganism has scarred the European Championship once more. Croatia fans fought among themselves and injured a steward with one of several flares thrown on to the pitch in Saint-Étienne and their team’s superiority over the Czech Republic disappeared amid the ugly scenes. Late goals from the substitutes Milan Skoda and Tomas Necid, the latter with a 93rd-minute penalty, gave the Czech Republic a point that had appeared beyond them until Croatia self-imploded on and off the pitch.
Not even the appeals of the Croatia captain, Darijo Srna, who played despite the death of his father this week, and the threat of abandonment halted the in-fighting among their supporters late in the second half.
All eyes were on Srna during the Croatian national anthem and his were filled with tears as it echoed around the Stade Geoffroy Guichard. The Croatia captain was told his father, Uzeir, had died after the win over Turkey on Sunday. He went home to Metkovic for the funeral and returned for a game that must have meant more to the Shahktar Donetsk defender than any other person in the stadium. “My father’s last wish was that I play here, as this is my last competition for Croatia,” the 34-year-old said. “He was at his happiest when I played for Croatia.” His son did him proud in Saint-Étienne.
The Czech Republic were in urgent need of points after their backs-to-the-wall job against Spain ended in late defeat but they were a distant second best from the start. Petr Cech conceded a needless corner in the opening minute that resulted in the Arsenal goalkeeper taking evasive action from Mario Mandzukic’s looping header, and his team struggled to retain possession thereafter. Croatia were too strong, too quick and, in Luka Modric, too incisive with their passing for Pavel Vrba’s team. The question was whether they could find the cutting edge to match as several promising moves, through balls and dangerous free-kicks passed without an end product.
Uncertainty in the Croatia defence offered the Czech Republic early hope in the first competitive meeting between the countries but, once Modric began to orchestrate matters in central midfield and his team-mates settled, there was one dominant force. Cech unwittingly denied Mandzukic when he missed a deep cross from Croatia’s impressive left-back, Ivan Strinic, yet blocked the striker’s header at the back post with his face as he fell.
Perisic just failed to connect with Mandzukic’s ball across the penalty area when Croatia broke while Czech Republic appealed in vain for a penalty from referee Mark Clattenburg. Ivan Rakitic shot high over the bar when it was returned from the right wing. It was 8-0 in terms of attempts on goal when Strinic sliced over in the 28th minute.
The pressure on Cech’s goal was unrelenting. Those in front of him lacked belief or quality in possession to stem the tide. The veteran keeper saved with his legs from the Barcelona midfielder but was exposed once again when Milan Badelj dispossessed Jaroslav Plasil in central midfield and the ball broke to Perisic in space on the left. The Internazionale midfielder advanced into the area, the central defender Tomas Sivok backed off, and he accepted the invitation to drive a low finish into the far corner of Cech’s goal. Perisic immediately pointed to Srna as the celebrations commenced before running to the technical area to embrace Marijan Mrmic, the Croatia goalkeeping coach, who also lost his father this week.
Vedran Corluka used the break in play to have his head bandaged for the second game in succession. The former Tottenham Hotspur defender aggravated an injury he suffered against Turkey and, having had time to work on his headwear since Sunday, reappeared for the second half in some kind of patriotic swimming cap. He looked absolutely ridiculous.
The knock may have been responsible for the lack of communication that prevented Croatia doubling their advantage before the break. Rakitic swept another inviting free-kick over the Czech defence and both Corluka and Domagoj Vida should have converted only to get in the other’s way.
Despite a more determined start to the second half, the Czech Republic gifted Croatia a seemingly comfortable lead when Plasil was again caught in possession in midfield. Marcelo Brozovic was at his heels this time and, with the Czech defence parting before him while playing a woeful offside trap, threaded a simple pass through to Rakitic who advanced on goal before beating Cech with a nonchalant chip.
Game over. Or so Croatia’s coach, Ante Cacic, appeared to believe as he withdrew Modric the maestro with half an hour remaining. His team’s authority was absolute at that stage but the substitution offered an unexpected initiative to their opponents.
Vrba responded by bringing on Milan Skoda and Josef Sural, to jeers from the Czech supporters, but their impact was immense. Tomas Rosicky had been on the periphery of the contest yet transformed the mood with an exquisite cross with the outside of his right foot that invited Skoda to soar above Corluka and steer a header beyond the tame defence of the goalkeeper, Danijel Subasic.
Croatia’s supporters disgraced themselves moments later and must share responsibility for disrupting their team’s momentum. In stoppage time Clattenburg penalised Vida for handball in the penalty area as he challenged Sivok in the air. Another Czech substitute, Necid, drilled a nerveless penalty down the centre of Subasic’s goal as Croatia spoiled their performance in more ways than one.