Italy and Croatia share spoils
Italy and Croatia played out a compelling 1-1 draw in Poznan yesterday evening to leave Group C well and truly in the balance. Italy dominated the opening exchanges as Andrea Pirlo continued his rich vein of form, over-shadowing Tottenham’s want away Luka Modric. The clearest opportunities fell to Mario Balotelli, who, though slightly more active than he was when through on goal against Spain earlier in the week, still appeared sluggish and cumbersome in front of goal, struggling to get meaningful strikes away to test Pletikosa. At times, it appears as though Balotelli tries too hard to make it seem like he hardly has to try. The best chance of the first half fell to Claudio Marchisio, the impressive Juventus midfielder, who spun in the box away from the Croat defence, only to see his effort blocked by the alert Pletikosa, who also smothered the rebound.
At the opposite end, Gianluigi Buffon was mostly left uncalled upon, though Croatia did appear to carry a threat through their impressive full-backs. Dario Srna’s delivery to the near post could, maybe should, have been turned goalwards by Nikica Jelavic, but the Everton man didn’t manage to get a touch on Srna’s cross. Eventually, Italy would take the lead, as the timeless Pirlo scored from a delicious free kick from 20 yards out; Pletikosa managed to get a hand to it, but it was too little too late, as the ball hit the back of the net. Pirlo’s goal only underlined what has until now been a splendid tournament for him, first equalling and at times outclassing Spain’s midfield riches before today’s exploits where he eclipsed Modric, whose suitors doubt whether the Croatia #10 is worth the £35m Tottenham are alleged to demand.
Slaven Bilic sensed Modric required greater freedom to impact the game, and moved to push Modric further up field in the second period, as Jelavic pulled out wide. The tactical switch worked to an extent, and Modric began to see more of the ball, but struggled to produce any opportunities for his team mates as Italy continued with a three man central defence. Prandelli’s Juventus-inspired tactical approach has shown promise until now, but Italy have lacked an extra quality in the final third to put Spain, and now Croatia, away. Balotelli continued to flatter to deceive and was replaced by Di Natale, who didn’t impact today’s game as he did the one against Spain.
Antonio Cassano again ran and worked tirelessly but has yet to produce a moment of real star quality, and Italy’s wing-backs, upon whom much of the attacking threat depends, have this far not managed to replicate their impressive domestic performances. Croatia’s full backs have been the exact opposite, and when Ivan Strinic delivered one of a number of dangerous crosses into the box, Giorgio Chiellini finally floundered, mistiming his jump, allowing Mario Mandzukic to control and then slam home an equaliser. Mandzukic moves onto three goals for the tournament, joint top with Russia’s Alan Dzagoev, and led a revitalized Croatia in searching for a winner which would have seem them qualify for the knock-out stages.
A second and winning goal did not come even though both sides worked the ball into dangerous positions. Italy had reason to feel aggrieved when not once, but twice, it seemed the linesman called very tight offsides when Maggio and Di Natale were in dangerous positions. Croatia continued to counter-attack effectively, and carry a serious threat for Spain in their final and decisive group game. Italy will expect to overcome the Irish, and will have to, and well. Only a win will do for Italy, who sit in third place with two points, and a handsome win may be needed as Spain and Croatia, both on four points, could more than possibly play out a draw in their final group game. After gifting goals to Spain and Croatia, Italy will hope Ireland are in similarly generous mood on Monday.
Andrea Pirlo continues to conduct the smoothest of melodies for the Italians, but a crescendo is required now for them to ensure qualification. Prandelli must decide whether he should stick with Balotelli and Cassano up front who have not yet looked to carry a serious enough goal threat. Meanwhile, Croatia continue to entertain and impress, and Spain will face a much sterner test than they did against Ireland when they face Bilic and his men; a win for Croatia could send the reigning champions home. Croatia have shown they can break with purpose and pace, and have two front men in Mandzukic and Jelavic who have an eye for goal, though Luka Modric will need to up his game to help his side deal with Spain’s midfield carousel. Both Italy and Croatia have provided us with some of the most entertaining football of the competition until now, and that seems set to continue in a tense round of final games.