Clinical Croatia sitting pretty as Italy hold Spain

As Italy and Spain squared up in Gdansk it looked like we were all set to embark on a classic war of attrition but the game had plenty of surprises as the Azzurri claimed a precious point from their Group C opener against the holders.  A Cesc Fabregas goal cancelled out Antonio Di Natale’s strike as the game ended 1-1.

Spain, heavily fancied prior to kick-off, started without a recognised striker on the pitch, with Vicente del Bosque opting to rely on his bottomless pit of midfield talent to create the goals and all the front men, including Fernando Torres, consigned to the bench.

Italy, who had been expected to shut-up shop, in contrast started with two forwards, Antonio Cassano and the much-discussed Mario Balotelli. From the off though they found themselves on the back-foot as Spain immediately eased into their trademark possession football. It was however, not total domination from the tournament favourites and Italy began to grow in confidence. The two best opportunities of the half came just before the break with Andres Iniesta firing over after an exquisite first touch and Iker Casillas producing a fine stop to deny Thiago Motta’s close-range header.

The second half saw Antonio Di Natale introduced for Balotelli after the Manchester City forward wasted a good chance by hesitating when one-on-one with Casillas. The Udinese veteran made an instant impact, latching onto a through ball and finishing expertly into the bottom corner. Cue Italian rearguard action? Not really, three minutes later Spain were level as typically intricate stuff from Silva released Fabregas inside the area and the Barcelona man finished coolly.

When Del Bosque finally brought on Torres after 72 minutes the forward spurned two chances. It was hardly vintage stuff from Spain and although they dominated and pressed for the winner they were unable to breach a solid Italian defence.

Italy, in fact, could have won the game when Di Natale volleyed wide at full stretch 14 minutes from time. Ultimately though, it will be seen as an excellent point for Cesare Prandelli’s side.

In the other game Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2012 campaign got off to a disastrous start amid a raucous atmosphere in Poznan. Backed by a huge travelling green army the Irish failed to properly clear a corner after just three minutes and Mario Mandzukic put Croatia ahead with a placed header.

Ireland levelled out-of-nowhere on 19 minutes when Sean St Ledger held off his marker at the back post to head his side level from Aiden McGeady’s free-kick delivery.

The Irish joy was short lived though as Croatia began to dictate the midfield and both Ivan Perisic and Luka Modric tested Shay Given from range. Croatia were deservedly back in front before half time. There was pinball inside the Irish penalty area and an error from Stephen Ward saw the ball fall to Nikica Jelavic, the Everton man making no mistake, steering ball past Given from close range.

Giovanni Trapattoni’s half-time team-talk was out the window within four minutes of the restart as another Mandzuckic’s header rebounded off the post and in off the sprawling Given.

Il Trap took immediate action throwing on both Jonathan Walters and Simon Cox and Ireland desperately sought a way back into the game, but lacked the invention to break an organised Croatia. As the half wore on it became clear Ireland were heading for defeat, although things may have been different if Keith Andrews had managed to guide a free header on target in the first of five added minutes.

In the end Croatia were good value for their 3-1 win and will go into their next game against Italy top of the group and confident they can get a result. The Italians meanwhile will also fancy their chances now having played their most difficult looking fixture. Trapattoni will need to lift his troops for the huge task of taking on the world champions, who will be a daunting proposition with or without a natural striker.

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Croatia Euro 2012 Ireland Italy Spain