Italy 1-1 Croatia: Mandzukic exploits Chiellini error to cancel out Pirlo pearler
The Wolfsburg striker netted his third goal of the tournament to grab a crucial equaliser for the Vatreni after the playmaker curled home a fine free-kick in the first half
Croatia came from behind to secure a vital 1-1 draw with Italy at Euro 2012 on Thursday to set up an exciting final round of matches in Group C.
Andrea Pirlo gave the Azzurri a deserved lead towards the end of the first half with a sumptuous free kick from the edge of the box, but goalscoring revelation Mario Mandzukic earned his side a point late on.
Both sides took to the field of play with the same line-ups from their first matches of the tournament, despite question marks hanging over the likes of Mario Balotelli - who came into the encounter with a yellow card incurred in the 1-1 draw with Spain - but he kept his place ahead of Antonio Di Natale.
Meanwhile, Croatia's convincing 3-1 success over the Republic of Ireland meant their preparations for the match were far less complicated.
The game was a frenetic affair from the word go. The Azzurri, seemingly on a high from their impressive display against the reigning European champions, showed their intent early on as they once more looked to attack their opponents on the break; Christian Maggio, Pirlo and Antonio Cassano all proved important
outlets once more.
Balotelli struck first inside the first three minutes, seeing a shot on the edge of the box whistle just wide of the target, but the Croats were keen to prove their worth in the encounter. Mandzukic, Sunday's hero with a pair of goals to his name, was actively involved in an ongoing duel with Giorgio Chiellini.
The Manchester City striker did not stop running throughout the half, always looking to find space for his team-mates to pick out a pass - Pirlo's delightful 50-yard through ball a highlight. And his encouraging link-up play with Cassano almost gave way to a goal, if not for Stipe Pletikosa's stop.
Croatia used their front pairing of Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic to launch attacks. The Everton striker, in a rich vein of form, posed the Azzurri back-line a problem or two as he kept Gianluigi Buffon on his toes with a couple of headed efforts.
Italy began to mix their play up, with Balotelli's hard work and Cassano's slick touches in advanced areas proving troublesome for the Croatian defence to keep up with. The AC Milan striker pounced on a raking ball and jinked his way into the box but dragged his strike wide of Pletikosa's goal.
Wave after wave of Nazionale attacks flowed forward, despite the occasional Croatian burst down the left flank, with Luka Modric embroiled in a fascinating battle with Thiago Motta.
Claudio Marchisio, who came close with a thunderous strike earlier in the half, ought to have opened the scoring on 37 minutes. Juventus team-mate Pirlo, who begun to pull the strings in midfield, released his colleague, but he could not beat Pletikosa from close range, despite getting two bites of the cherry.
But Italy took a deserved lead two minutes later. A free kick on the edge of the box was curled in magnificently by playmaker Pirlo, who claimed his 10th goal in Nazionale colours. It proved a fitting end to a fluid half of football in Poznan.
Croatia coach Slaven Bilic would have been understandably frustrated with his side's lethargic showing, and it appeared that his half-time team talk worked wonders. Jelavic, the thorn in Chiellini's side throughout the opening stages of the match, grew in stature as the game wore on.
Modric began to break through the shackles once imposed on him as the Croatians set up camp in the Italians' half, forcing their opponents to defend deeper and deeper. The impact of the Azzurri's most influential stars had died down considerably, meaning there could be only one outcome.
Mandzukic profited from Chiellini's misjudgment in the box from a cross to collect the ball at the far post and fire past Buffon off the post for a crucial equaliser with 18 minutes left on the clock. It appeared the Croats had found the initiative to go on and emerge victorious.
However, a subdued last 10 minutes was played out, with Italy again struggling to recapture their earlier fluency, despite the introductions of Di Natale and Sebastian Giovinco. For Croatia, they leave with a crucial point and go into their encounter with Spain, who face Ireland later on Thursday, on a high.