Croatia currently sit atop Group C, two points ahead of previous world cup winners Italy and Spain as they cancelled each other out in a 1-1 draw earlier today. Croatia capitalised on this result by beating Republic of Ireland in the later fixture at stunning Stadion Miejski in Poznan, whilst starting off their European Championship with a win in an impressive manner. The game was built up in many different ways, some repeated the fact Republic of Ireland were unbeaten in 14, Croatia had only beaten them once before, as well as citing the fact Slaven Billic is leaving Croatia after the tournament, questioning his commitment to the cause. On the other hand some pundits sided with the Balkan side, stating that the 8th place nation would be too much for the unexperienced Ireland side, who are making only their second appearance at a European Championship.
The game started with both sets of fans showing their passion, with the Irish and Croatian fans being in good voice for the kick off. The Ireland fans seemed more up for the game and Croatia’s early dominance in possession was met with unrest by the Irish fans. Croatia soon made their early spell of good football count as they took the lead through a Mandzukic header on the third minute, as a cut back from captain Srna deflected off an Irish defender and found it’s way to the troublesome striker, whose header looked tame at best, however it didn’t need pace as veteran goalkeeper Shay Given found himself wrong footed and couldn’t quite make it to the ball, getting just his fingertips there in time. Really the only error in this goal was Ireland’s inability to settle, which would be hard to begrudge them, as it is a big stage to step up to, and one they are very new to. Striker Manduzkic celebrated by running to the bench and embracing the entirety of the squad, which spells a togetherness within the side that is very promising.
You would have forgiven Ireland for letting their head drop after this crushing early goal, however they kept their wits about them and started to show more positive signs, Kevin Doyle was especially significant as he was a useful outlet for Ireland and caused a lot of problems for the relatively new partnership of Corluka and Schildenfeld at centre back for Croatia, the Wolves striker’s work rate was immense and caused problems across the Croatian back four. He earned many free kicks in dangerous areas, and it was Doyle’s hard work rate that led to Ireland’s equaliser. He earned the free kick that McGeady whipped in with pace towards the back post, which Sean St. Ledger converted with a strong header. A phantom whistle from the crowd caused problems throughout the game, and there is a question whether it was this that caused a lapse in concentration from the Croatian defensive line, who reacted slowly to the set piece, Corluka in particular lost his track of his man St. Ledger who was able to peel off of the acting Croatian centre back and find himself with a free header at the back post far too easily.
After the equaliser the game became scrappy and hard fought, with the rain causing problems for the players, as they slipped on many occasions, and some appeared to have found it difficult to judge the flight and path of the ball on the wet surface. Between St. Ledger’s equaliser on the 20th minute and half time Croatia were the better side and looked more promising on the ball, as Ireland seemed happy to surrender the ball. Modric was at his creative best, and was allowed a lot of room by the central midfield partnership of Whelan and Andrews, who sat far too deep to put any real pressure on a Croatian midfield that dominated most the game. Croatia’s second goal which meant they went in at the break with the lead was a result of all sorts of errors by the Irish back four. Modric who was really starting to get going by this point fired from outside the box and after a ricochet the ball fell to Stephen Ward, whose clearance was a calamity that sliced towards his own goal and in form Everton forward Nikita Jelavic made no mistake from such a gift and cooly chipped past the advancing Given. The Everton front man then ran to the bench to celebrate with the rest of his squad, just as Mandzukic had done before him, reiterating my point that there is a very desirable squad cohesion within the Croatian camp.
After the break Ireland were once again slow to start, however the final goal of the game did summarise the poor fortunes of Ireland and showed that the luck of the Irish really wasn’t in the air in Poland on the night. The Croatians came out for the second half on the front foot, and once again it only took them a few minutes to capitalise on the slow, unsteadiness of the Irish. Perisic put in a good ball for Mandzukic to header powerfully at goal, the ball bounced back off the post, struck the head of keeper Given, who had dived to meet the initial header, and rolled painfully over the line. This goal epitomised Ireland’s night, the usually tight, compact and hard to break down back four were not on their game, and whilst the ever reliable Shay Given would normally be there to clean up he was woefully unlucky throughout the game, however props must be given to Mandzukic who won the aerial battle against Dunne for the majority of the night night, which is no small feat as Dunne is normally solid in the air.
After the final goal the game pattered out slightly, as Croatia got men behind the ball and became hard to break down, with Ireland having little in the way of inventiveness to match the formidable Balkan defence. There were some half chances though, for both sides, as Andrews headed agonisingly past the post and both Rakitic and Cox fired from outside the box, almost getting their names on the scoresheet if it wasn’t for poor accuracy. The big talking point of the game will probably be the 63rd minute, when Schildenfeld came through the back of Keane, tripping the experienced captain inside the box and seemingly not touching the ball, both the referee and his officials missed the foul however, and if Ireland fail to qualify Irish fans may always remember that as the moment that could have changed their whole tournament.
The game was won by Croatia, however it was more through a poor Irish performance than class from Croatia, and they will need to step up their game in their final two group games if they want to qualify, as Italy and Spain both look as if they mean serious business at this years competition. This is not to take away from the performance put in by Croatia, as wing backs Strinic and Srna were a particular highlight throughout the game. The midfield also performed well, as they controlled the pace of the game, dictated the play and provided well for the front men, however they may not have looked so good if the Irish were more organised and had some luck during the game. Croatia did look good whilst in the lead and appeared well organised on the back foot, so if they are able to nick a lead against either of their next opponents they may be hopeful of being able to hold out for all three points, as they looked comfortable in this game. One final thought is the discipline of the Croatian side, they finished second to only Greece in regards to most bookings during the qualifying stages and that side of the team came out against Ireland, as they gave away 19 free kicks in the 90 minutes, and if they continue in that vein they will be punished by the bigger teams. In summary though Croatia have done what is probably most important in this tournament, start off with a win and the will be hoping to gain confidence form this victory, that always looked theirs to take on the Italians and Spanish sides over the next week.
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