Italy 1 Croatia 1: Lessons from a Group C stalemate in Poznan
What did we learn from Italy's 1-1 draw with Croatia after Andrea Pirlo's opener was cancelled out by Mario Mandzukić?
Dazzling Pirlo pulls the strings
Shrugging off challenges and carving out countless opportunities for his team-mates, Andrea Pirlo turned back the years with an exemplary performance in Poznan. At 33, the Juventus midfielder is fast approaching the twilight of his career but he ran the show for the Azzurri as they were held to another draw in Group C. His distribution was second-to-none and it was fitting that he opened the scoring in the first half with a sublime free-kick in the 39th minute. From the edge of the box and to the left of goal, he curled his effort up over the wall and inside the near post to net his nation’s second goal of Euro 2012 – even if Stipe Pletikosa got a hand to it. The former Internazionale midfielder made 397 appearances for AC Milan before joining Juventus last summer, where he won the Serie A title as the Bianconeri enjoyed an unbeaten campaign in Italy’s top flight. Remarkably, Pirlo has not been on the losing side in the Italian league since December 2010. A non-fancied Italy side are poised to reap the rewards if he can continue to be their chief architect in Poland and Ukraine.
Mandzukić preserves Croatia record
Mario Mandzukić netted Croatia’s equaliser and his third goal of the tournament in the 72nd minute just as his side were beginning to dominate proceedings. After Giorgio Chiellini misjudged Ivan Strinic’s cross, the Wolfsburg forward took a delightful touch and drilled his shot past Gianluigi Buffon, off the inside of the post. Mandzukić’s double against the Republic of Ireland had earned his side a 3-1 victory in their Group C opener, and his strike on Thursday preserved his nation’s impressive unbeaten record against the Azzurri. Ahead of the game, Italy were without a win in their five games against their opponents since the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, with Croatia having won three and drawn the other two. It is an impressive record against the 2006 World Cup winners, who have not missed a major international tournament since 1992. At 26, Mandzukić is proving himself as a force to be reckoned with in Poland and Ukraine and is now level with Mario Gómez and Alan Dzagoev as the tournament’s leading goal scorer.
Di Natale deserves his chance
Antonio Di Natale could not have staked his claim for a starting spot any better than by netting Italy’s opener against Spain on Saturday. He came off the bench and stroked a composed finish past Iker Casillas before Italy were pegged back by Cesc Fàbregas’ equaliser three minutes later. And following Mario Balotelli’s erratic display in that game, many were tipping Cesare Prandelli to hand the 34-year-old a place in his line-up against Croatia – yet he was forced to settle for a seat on the bench once again. Manchester City striker Balotelli showed glimpses of brilliance but ultimately failed to really test Pletikosa in the Croatia goal. It is remarkable to consider that Di Natale, who scored a staggering 28 goals in 42 appearances for Udinese last season, had only made one appearance for Italy since the 2010 World Cup prior to the European championship. The striker was brought on for Balotelli with less than 20 minutes remaining in Poznan but struggled to see much of the ball as his side were pegged back by a Croatia side in the ascendency. Surely he deserves a chance to impress from the start in what is almost certain to be his last international tournament?
Balotelli remains an enigma
For all his headline-grabbing antics, it is still difficult to know what to make of Mario Balotelli. There is no disputing his obvious talent. Thirteen goals in 23 appearances in Manchester City’s title-winning campaign is a decent return by anyone’s standards. But he was also sent off twice last term and it seems there is a flash of petulance for every glimpse of brilliance. He cut a frustrated figure against Croatia and although he had Pletikosa scrambling with some fizzing long-range efforts, he failed to really make an impact in Poznan. He has only scored one senior goal for Italy since making his debut in 2010 and his place in the starting line-up is certainly under threat after another below-par display. Italy are likely to have to beat the Republic of Ireland if they are to reach the quarter-finals and Cesare Prandelli can ill afford another fruitless performance from their star marksman. It’s high time he repaid his manager’s faith.