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Croatia Euro 2012: As the smoke clears at The Municipal Stadium Group C is still wide open

Croatia fans cause a delay in play by throwing flares onto the pitch

Thursday nights showdown between Italy and Croatia really did prove the age old proverb that football is a game of two halves. After the first 45 minutes Italy looked very much in control of the game, and they looked good value for their lead, which was gained through a stunning Andrea Pirlo free-kick. In the second half though Croatia looked a different side and Bilic must have implemented some tactical changes as Croatia went on the front foot and passed the curse of looking flat and dejected onto the Italians. They eventually got their reward through Mario Mandzukic, who showed his strikers instinct when Chilleni missed his header from Strinic’s cross and the big centre forward fired in from six yards. The game was an entertaining one in which two sides showed us the best of their footballing ability in each of the halves, and ultimately a draw was probably the fairest result from a hard fought game.

The first half opened and Croatia looked as if they learnt some lessons from their previous opponents Ireland, as they were very slow to start and Italy pressed on the Croatian defence with very little reply from Bilic’s side. Balotelli looked especially dangerous and had a few chances in the opening exchanges and Italy saw a string of chances either skim Pletikosa’s goal and were denied in fantastic fashion by the goalie himself, as two attempts from Marchisio at close range were blocked in fine fashion by the Croatian goalkeeper. While Croatia had little to offer in the first half they did see two half chances when they eventually found momentum in the Italian half. Firstly a coming together of bodies between Jelavic and Chilleni left the former adamant that he should have been awarded a penalty, but Howard Webb gave the decision the other way, givin a free kick against the Everton man. Italy’s domination, slick football and control over possession was rewarded when Andrea Pirlo, who put in a man of the match performance dictating the play from midfield, curled a stunning free kick past Pletikosa, who got agonisingly close to saving the curling free kick but could only help the ball on it’s way into the net. After conceding this demoralising goal any fight that was in Croatia left and whilst Italy didn’t threaten for the the last five minutes of the half Croatia looked like a side with their heads down, and they had a flatness about their game.

The second half saw all this change however, and the game became pretty even after the restart, however this was probably more down to the fact it turned into a scrappy affair, with Howard Webb having to step in on a variety of occasions, which meant creativity was somewhat lacking. Although after both Modric and Balotelli drove either high or wide the game started to swing in Croatia’s favour and they started to play the slick, smooth football that punished the Irish in the opener. Croatia pushed their full backs forward once more in similar fashion as they did against Ireland so effectively, and once more they looked dangerous as they overlapped their midfield counterparts. It was a wing back that assisted Mandzukic’s instinctive finish as left back Strinic played a dangerous ball into the box which fell to the in form striker who slipped the ball past Buffon, ultimately however Chilleni will be asking questions of himself here, as he completely misjudged his defensive header and was made to suffer. After the goal Croatia continued in the same vein, and became much the better side, Bilic must have given the half time team talk of his life as they looked a completely different side, and ultimately may come to rue the fact they didn’t get a winner whilst the momentum was in their favour. One aspect of the game that I must concede that I judged completely wrong was the aerial aspect, in my post previewing the game I put it out there that I thought the likes of Chilleni and Bonucci would control Mandzukic’s aerial threat a lot better than Richard Dunne had in the opener, this was not the case and Mandzukic had the beating of the back two in the air on many occasions, showing that he is a very potent target man.

The result of this games leaves Group C completely open, as with most of the groups as Germany are the only team to book their place in the quarter finals. The final games in Group C should be one of the most interesting of the final round of games. Ireland will be keen to pick up at least something from the tournament and playing for pride might just motivate them beyond the poor performances they’ve put in so far, as I believe Trapattoni will ask of his players, do you want to be dumped out of this competition with one goal and no points to show for all the effort put in to qualify? Many have already written them off and said Italy are almost ensured entry to the quarter finals as a thumping win would put them above Croatia on goal difference if they were to draw with world champions Spain, and obviously would put them ahead on points if their is a loser in that game. I don’t believe it is that set in stone however and I think the Ireland Italy game might just surprise spectators. This leaves the Spain vs. Croatia game to evaluate, and Croatia are really up against it. the Balkan side probably wanted to go into the final game against Spain with their qualification already guaranteed, however that is not the case and unless Ireland do put in a big performance and do Croatia a massive favour by beating or drawing with Italy a loss will see Croatia out of the competition. There is hope for Bilic’s side however, and I really do believe that if Croatia play to the absolute best of their abilities, and they are able to ensure Torres doesn’t replicate the performance he put in against Ireland, they may be able to nick a draw against the giants of Spain, and that might just see them go through.

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