Croatia beat Ireland to take the lead in Group C after Spain only managed a draw with Italy. The defending champ's normally nimble offense was sluggish getting into gear.
In a move that had many Spain fans scratching their heads, head coach Vincente del Bosque opted to start Cesc Fabregas in an attacking midfield trio rather than go with the team's true striker, Fernando Torres. Torres came into the game eventually as a sub, but Spain's offense mostly lacked the finishing touch in the first half, much to the delight of the Italians.
Italymatched up against the defending champs well, holding Spain's formidable offense at bay while creating a number of opportunities for themselves. The first half ended without a goal from either side, but Italy went into the locker rooms having played the better half.
The Italians struck first in the second half, although it was their second big chance that ended up yielding the goal. Mario Balotelli took advantage of a mistake by Spanish defender Sergio Ramos, with no one to beat but goalkeeper Iker Casillas. But Balotelli hesitated too long in front of the goal, seemingly daring Casillas to blink first. That gave Ramos enough time to sprint back to the goal and break up the play. It was Balotelli's last play of the match, as he was subbed for Antonio Di Natale immediately after.
The sub proved to yield immediate results for Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, as Di Natale scored on one of his first touches thanks to a through-ball from Pirlo in the 61st minute.
Italy's lead didn't last long, however, as a momentary lapse in what was an otherwise stellar defense allowed Spain to even the score in the 63rd minute. David Silva passed in the area to Fabregas, who finished with a low strike into the net.
The goal scorer, Fabregas, was substituted for Torres in the 73rd minute, giving Spain a true striker. On his first touch of the match, Spain's 'El Nino' from Champions League winners Chelsea made a solo run through the Italian back line off an excellent through ball from Jesus Navas. Torres challenged Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon one-on-one, but Buffon was able to disrupt the attack before Torres could get a shot off. Torres squandered another one-on-one opportunity when he chipped a shot over Buffon's head but landed it on top of the netting in the goal.
Irish fall to quick Croatian goals
The second Group C match on Sunday between Ireland and Croatia may not have had the same gravitas as the Spain-Italy marquee matchup, but both teams knew this game was arguably more important than their eventual matchups with the group favorites.
Irelandare making their first European Championship appearance since 1988 and are coached by Italian legend Giovanni Trapattoni. Croatia are playing their last international competition under Slaven Bilic, who has announced he will step down from his post after the tournament. With only two teams advancing to the knock-out round from each group, neither side could afford to drop points with matches against Spain and Italy looming.
Just three minutes after the start of the game in a rainy Municipal Stadium in Poznan, Poland, Mario Mandzukic put Croatia in the driver's seat with an early goal. Ireland failed to clear a corner and the ball came to Mandzukic, who put away the goal from ten meters away.
Ireland were to shake off the early goal and regrouped, earning a free kick after 19 minutes. Aiden McGeady took the kick and found Sean St Ledger off the far post, whose diving header found the back of the net.
The game would not stay tied for long, however, as another blunder in the Irish defense led to Croatia's second goal. A misguided attempt to clear the ball by Stephen Ward ended up going to Nikica Jelavic, who had cleared Ireland's last man and easily beat Shay Given in goal to put the Croats up 2-1 just before half.
Ireland's streak of bad luck didn't wash away at halftime, as the Croats came out with another quick goal to start the second half. A long cross from Ivan Perisic found Mandzukic who connected for a header. The ball hit the post, and a mid-dive Given could do nothing when the ball bounced off his head and in, putting Croatia ahead 3-1 after 48 minutes.
The remainder of the half saw Ireland throw everything they had at the Croatians, but near-misses on goal and some key saves from Croatian keeper Stipe Pletikosa meant the Irish did not find their way back into the game.
Group D, the final group to play their first matches, gets underway on Monday, with England taking on France and tournament co-hosts Ukraine facing Sweden.
Author: Matt Zuvela
Editor: Spencer Kimball