A technically superior Croatia score early and either side of half-time to win a pivotal game in group C against an Irish side whose defensive solidity was exposed on the big stage.
- In a game billed as ‘must win’ for both sides, Croatia gained the much-needed three points thanks to their front five who put in as close to a complete performance as their coach Slaven Bilic could have hoped for.
- Their goalscorers scored, playmakers made plays and wide players combined together regularly to frustrate Ireland who were second best by quite some distance on this night.
- The game couldn’t have started any worse for the Irish when they failed to deal with a Croatia corner, allowed Mario Mandzukic to roam around the box all alone, before he softly headed his side into the lead. It initially looked a very soft goal to concede and replays weren’t much kinder, although they did show ‘keeper Shay Given take a step to his right just before he dived to the left inches out of reach of the ball.
- Ireland throughout qualifying showed that they start games well so it was a surprise to see them go down so early but they responded well and took advantage of poor Croatian discipline and a whistle-happy referee. Vedran Coruka, playing centre back for his national team, isn’t a very good defender and was a at fault on the free kick that Ireland equalised from. Aiden McGeady’s ball, whipped into the back post, was excellent and defender Sean St Ledger headed home the equaliser. St Ledger, who plays for Leicester in the Championship, hadn’t scored all season for his club but became the first player in this tournament to score from a set piece.
- Ireland, a team used to playing very deep with tight banks of four, settled into the game at 1-1 but were simply allowing Croatia too much of the game. They didn’t press them high enough or get anywhere tight enough to their opponents. The writing was on the wall and so it came, two minutes before half time, when, from another corner, Luka Modric’s long range effort was blocked, but Stephen Ward’s miscued clearance went to Nikica Jelavic who superbly rounded Given to make it 2-1.
- Before we get to the supposed ‘controversy’ it has to be pointed out what a class finish it was by the Everton man who now looks primed to do for his country what he has done for his club since January.
- Ok, now to the goal and whether or not it was offside. Irish fans everywhere thought it was but it simply wasn’t. When Modric shot, the ball hit Ireland’s wall of defenders making the zone where Jelavic was the second phase and thus not offside. Only when the ball came to Jelavic, via an Irish kick, was he active and the striker did the rest.
- The timing of the goals was terrible for Giovanni Trapattoni’s team and it continued soon after when they, once again, gave Croatia’s playmakers far too much time on the ball and Ivan Perisic’s cross found the leaping Mandzukic whose header hit the post and bounced off Given and into the net. 3-1.
- Ireland didn’t give up and had a penalty claim in the second half – once again showing the liabilities of Croatia’s back four – but ultimately they never got close to troubling Croatia’s lead. They’ll look back at this game with great disappointment as their defensive solidity, that was their strength heading in, disappeared in Poznan and looks to have cost them any shot at the knock out stages at these championships.
- Croatia, with Italy and Spain to come, are far from that stage yet but look a team with many assets going forward. They need to work on their back four and defending from set pieces but they definitely have a chance to be a sleeper pick that some thought they might be in group C.
- Mario Mandzukic
- Luka Modric
- Ivan Perisic