After Italy managed to hold defending champions Spain to a 1-1 draw in the opening game of Group C, Croatia seized their chance to strengthen their prospects of reaching the last eight. Facing an Irish side unbeaten in 14 games and who have been moulded into one of Europe’s most difficult teams to breakdown, it was key that Slaven Bilic’s side started strongly. Mario Mandzukic’s header in the second minute defeated an off-balance Shay Given to put Croatia ahead – it was the sixth fastest goal in the history of the competition. Ireland offered brief resistance, and exploited Croatia’s soft defensive centre when Sean St Ledger headed an equaliser. But Nikica Jelavic’s strike reasserted Croatia’s dominance, before Given’s own goal insured Bilic’s men went straight to the top of the group. The 43-year-old’s side can now all but book their place in the quarter-finals with victory over Italy with a game to spare.
Ireland’s 18th-minute equaliser was largely assisted from some dour defending by Vedran Corluka. The former Tottenham right-back, who was drafted in at centre-half for Croatia, struggled to cope with Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Kevin Doyle and was penalised early on for a foul on the forward on the edge of Stipe Pletikosa’s area. Keith Andrews took the set-piece but failed to take advantage. However, Aiden McGeady assumed free-kick duty at the next opportunity, curling a delightful cross to the far post, where St Ledger outmuscled Corluka to net Ireland’s equaliser. The 26-year-old was more assured after the interval – perhaps aided by swapping his marking duties and marshalling former Spurs team-mate Keane. But the task of keeping Ireland’s record goal scorer, who is on the crest of his career, quiet is undoubtedly a much easier assignment then future challenges against Italy and Spain.
Giovanni Trapattoni will have earmarked Premier League duo Jelavic and Luka Modric as Croatia’s danger-men ahead of the Group C opener – and the pair were central figures in masterminding a 3-1 win. For the majority of the first half, Modric dictated proceedings for Bilic’s men, with Andrews failing in his remit to limit the Tottenham midfielder’s influence on the game. Meanwhile, Everton’s Jelavic continued his fine domestic form with a clinical strike in the 43rd minute. The chance was born from Modric’s ambitious shot from outside the area, which Ward deflected into the path of the former Rangers striker. Jelavic, who scored 11 goals in 16 appearances after his January switch to Goodison Park, deftly lifted his finish over Given to put Croatia back in front. Jelavic and Modric will be key against Italy, and if the attacking midfielder can continue to orchestrate Croatia’s silky moves, and Bilic’s side continue to create chances for Jelavic, a place in the last-eight is inevitable.
Surprisingly, Ireland had the upper hand over Croatia in terms of past meetings, winning three of their six encounters. While Trapattoni’s side are certainly the weakest of the teams in Group C, placed 18th in the Fifa world rankings, the Irish were capable of progressing into the last eight. Before the Croatia result, Ireland were undefeated since March 2011 and had kept 14 clean sheets in that time. Their success has been built on a mean back four which benefits from watertight protection by a defensively-minded midfield. Entering into their first international tournament since 2002, Ireland needed to abide by the same principles which had delivered results in qualifying. But sloppy errors were the undoing of the Boys in Green, and it all started from their failure to pick up Manduzkic in the second minute. It set the tone for a torrid 90 minutes, and Jelavic’s strike was a further blow before half-time after the Irish had momentarily regrouped. What little hope remained for Trapattoni’s men was extinguished in the 47th minute as Manduzkic was allowed to take aim at Given’s goal, with his shot smacking the post and rebounding into the net off the goalkeeper’s head. Trapattoni, who is the oldest manager to take charge at the European championship at 73 years and 85 days, will need to call on all his experience to motivate his squad for two daunting games against Spain and Italy.
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