Italy played out their second 1-1 draw of Euro 2012 on Thursday – this time against Croatia in the western Polish town of Poznan. The Azzurri are now in real danger of going out of Group C.
It could have been billed as the clash of the underrated. Italy, thought to be in sad decline after one of the most ignominious World Cup defenses in South Africa 2010, were playing against Croatia – unfancied despite boasting a host of world class talents, not least Vedran Corluka, Luka Modric and Nikica Jelavic.
But the Croatians were at the top of their group after making mincemeat of Ireland with a 3-1 win last Sunday, while Italy had earned a credible draw against reigning World and European champions Spain.
The Italians made all the early running in the first half. Mercurial Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli, who looked jaded on Sunday, conjured an early spin and shot just off target in only the third minute. And while incisive Italian attacks from Antonio Cassano usually broke against a determined Croatian defense, midfielder Claudio Marchisio was often on hand to follow up with vicious long-range efforts from just outside the area.
An octopus can't be everywhere
And it was Marchisio who also drew a stunning double save from Stipe Pletikosa in the 37th minute. The Croatian keeper more than earned his "Octopus" moniker when Marchisio looked certain to score as the ball broke to him into the penalty area, only to be denied by two lightning fast saves.
It fell to an old man to provide the breakthrough – Italy's 33-year-old veteran playmaker Andrea Pirlo scored the tournament's first direct free-kick in the 39th minute. The ageing maestro sent a perfect curling shot over the wall and into the bottom near-post corner from just left of center. The Octopus got a tentacle to it, but could do nothing about its precision.
But the Italians failed to press home their advantage in the second half, and reverted to their defensive stereotype. Within minutes of the re-start, the hitherto stifled star Luka Modric found himself with space to shoot on two occasions, and while those efforts did not trouble Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, they foreshadowed what was to come.
Apparently learning from Spain's frustration against the Italians, Croatia had opted for a completely different attacking tactic – deep, searching crosses into the box. One of these, from left back Ivan Strinic, dropped beautifully to Mario Mandzukic at the far post in the 72nd minute. The striker took one touch and hammered the ball in off the post – drawing level with Germany's Mario Gomez to get his third of the tournament.
The draw leaves Italy, the 2006 World Champions, in a precarious position – if Spain beat Ireland, as expected, later on Thursday, the Azzurri will go into the final game of Group C with their fate not entirely in their own hands.
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Spencer Kimball