Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic became joint top scorer of Euro 2012 with a second half equaliser that earned his country a 1-1 draw against Italy in Poznan.
Mandzukic joined Germany’s Mario Gomez and Russia’s Alan Dzagoev on three goals for the competition. His 72nd minute goal means Italy must beat Ireland in their final group match to reach the quarter finals after again losing their grip on a leading position.
The Italians enjoyed the better of much of the first half, with Mario Balotelli – again selected ahead of Antonio Di Natale up front – guilty of spurning three good opportunities in the opening 15 minutes.
Italy could have broken the deadlock when the lively Claudio Marchisio fired over the bar from 20 yards, and the midfielder should have scored again when he was sent clean through on goal by Antonio Cassano, but fired straight at the goalkeeper.
The goal finally came when veteran midfielder Andrea Pirlo reminded the world of his brilliant best from dead ball situations. From a tight angle to the left of the penalty box, Pirlo lined up the free-kick with pinpoint precision and, with a little nick off a Croatian head, flighted the ball over the wall and into the bottom left hand corner of hapless Stipe Pletikosa’s net.
The moment of brilliance from Pirlo was exactly what Italy deserved, as they had bossed the first half and should have extended their lead moving into the second. Cassano, running the show with Pirlo, was twice thwarted by Pletikosa but the Italians soon came to regret their missed opportunities.
Luka Modric, on the periphery of the match in the opening period, moved into a more forward thinking position and began to earn Croatia more time on the ball. But, for a while at least, the Italian defence stood strong and resolute with sweeper Daniele De Rossi outstanding in his role.
Balotelli again went close to turning the tide, but was again made to pay for his inability to put the ball in the back of the net as Croatia bounced back to level the scores.
Centre half Giorgio Chiellini misjudged a cross from Danijel Pranjic and Mandzukic was quick to pounce on the opportunity and smash the ball home from close range past Gianluigi Buffon. The Croatians seized the momentum and had the better of the final minutes, but in truth it seemed both sides were happy to settle for a point.
Croatia now sit in second place on four points alongside Spain, while a second consecutive 1-1 draw leaves Italy two points behind. The result inevitably gives the Italians the upper hand given they face the eliminated Irish while the Croats take on a rampant Spanish side.