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Group C swung decisively in favour of upstarts Croatia on Sunday as the side made a strong statement of intent with their resounding 3-1 victory over Republic of Ireland, which all but end the chances of the Boys in Green of making it past the knock-out rounds. Slavin Bilicâ€™s side were slight favourites going into the match and they justified that tag with an impressive performance. Their strikers were in great form, with Mario Mandzukic bagging a well taken brace with two great headers on either side of a controversial Nikica Jelavic chip. Sean St. Ledgerâ€™s header had put the Irish back on level terms early in the first half, but the Croats stamped their superiority on the match to finish deserved winners. Earlier in the day the other Group C game between world and European champions Spain and a much changed Italy finished 1-1, thereby leaving Croatia the unlikely leaders of this Group.
Giovanni Trapattoni has decided to stick with a tried and tested 4-4-2 formation. The strong and talented Kevin Doyle is the target man up top, with star striker Robbie Keane making his trademark smart runs just behind him. McGeady and Duff would pace up and down the flanks, with Andrews and Whelan taking care of the centre of midfield. The experience of Dunne and O'Shea in defense would help to keep the Croats at bay. Stephen Ward plays at left back with St Ledger partnering Dunne in the centre. The dependable Shay Given would be between the sticks.
The Croatians are setup in a much more attacking 4-1-3-2 formation with Everton sensation JelaviÄ‡ getting the chance to partner MandÅ¾ukiÄ‡ up top in the absence of veteran Ivica Olic. Driving force Modric will form the centre of the three man attacking midfield with PeriÅ¡iÄ‡ and RakitiÄ‡ playing wide. VukojeviÄ‡ will play behind them in a defensive midfield role, trying to dictate the game from there. StriniÄ‡, Ä†orluka, Schildenfeld and captain Srna form the back four ahead of goalkeeper Pletikosa, with Corluka coming into centre defense in place of the injured Dejan Lovren.
Croatia stunned Ireland in pouring conditions with a goal as early as the 3rd minute. Striker Mandzukic found himself on the score sheet after heading past the flapping Shay Given at his near post. A partially cleared corner eventually found its way to Srna, whoâ€™s deflected cross was brilliantly headed in by the striker, who had just picked himself up after losing his footing near the penalty spot.
The soft early goal was sure to make Giovanni Trapattoni livid as he has built his sides over the years on winning games 1-0. The Republic of Ireland played better after conceding the goal, and the next 15 minutes saw both sides earn free kicks in their attacking third. McGeady curled in one such free kick from the left flank in the 19th minute, which was beautifully guided past Pletikosa in the Croatian goal by Ireland defender St Ledger, after getting on the right side of makeshift centre back Vedran Corluka.
Croatia did not let their heads go down and were on the attack right away. PeriÅ¡iÄ‡ had a sweetly struck drive pushed away by the experienced Given, who did well to get down to his left. The first half hour has been an entertaining affair with both sides giving their all in a great footballing atmosphere in Ponzan.
The Croatians enjoyed a nice spell of domination after the half hour mark with shots and crosses flying into the Irish penalty box. And the Vatneri did not let the momentum go to waste by restoring their lead two minutes before the break. A Modric shot was sliced into Jelavicâ€™s path by Ireland left back Stephen Ward, who gladly accepted the gift by dinking the ball over the onrushing Given. However, the Irish would feel hard done by as the goal poacher appeared to be a good many yard offside in the buildup.
Irish midfielder Keith Andrews let his frustration get the better of him with a poor challenge on Mandzukic, which earned him the first yellow of the game. The Croatians almost added to the Irishâ€™s misery by coming close to increasing their lead with the last chance of the half. A well-crafted move saw Perisic find some space on the left flank, and his cross was headed just over by Rakitic, who seemed to have come in Jelavicâ€™s path. Croatia had been the better side in the first half, but they had been gifted the goals, rather than scoring them.
The luck of the Irish continued to be poor in the second half as the Croatians sensationally started the second half in a similar manner to the first, with Mandzukic scoring three minutes into the half via a header again. The goal allowed the Bilicâ€™s side some breathing room, having doubled their lead. The ball deflected off the back of Shay Givenâ€™s head after cannoning back off the post and found its way into the net.
Trapattoni responded by sending on the attacking duo of Cox and Walters to replace Doyle and McGeady minutes after conceding. The move almost paid off as the two combined to carve out a chance which was volleyed over by Cox. The next 20-25 minutes was a battle in midfield with Ireland desperately trying to get the ball into the Croatian third, while Croatia were content to keep the ball and hit on the break.
Ireland striker Robbie Keane was upended in the penalty box on the hour mark, and the refereeâ€™s disinterest seemed to add to Irelandâ€™s misery. Impressive winger Rakatic almost put the icing on the cake with a fourth in the 78th minute, but his beautiful curling shot found the wrong side of the post. The last quarter of an hour was all Ireland with the introduction of Shane Long introducing some much needed pace in the Irish team. Midfielder Keith Andrews meanwhile had squandered a series of difficult chances, and just tested the goalkeeper once.
The entertaining game ended 3-1 to the Croatians, who had been the better side over the course of the contest. They deserved their victory and their clash against Italy could well be like a knockout game. The Irish seem all but out having lost what seemed to be their easiest fixture. The Irish though would rue their poor luck and refereeing decisions, but one hardly sees the result being different even if Jelavicâ€™s goal had been ruled out.
Republic of Ireland (4-4-2): Given, St Ledger, Ward, O'Shea, Dunne, Whelan, McGeady (Cox 54'), Andrews, Duff, Doyle (Walters 53'), Keane (Long 72').
Subs: Westwood, Forde, Kelly, McShane, O'Dea, Gibson, Hunt, Green, McClean, Walters, Long, Cox
Croatia (4-1-3-2): Pletikosa, StriniÄ‡, Ä†orluka, Schildenfeld, RakitiÄ‡ (Dujmovic 92'), VukojeviÄ‡, ModriÄ‡, Srna, PeriÅ¡iÄ‡ (Eduardo 89'), JelaviÄ‡ (Kranjcar 72'), MandÅ¾ukiÄ‡
Subs: Kelava, SubaÅ¡iÄ‡, Å imuniÄ‡, Buljat, Vrsaljko, Vida, PranjiÄ‡, Badelj, DujmoviÄ‡, KranjÄar, KaliniÄ‡, Eduardo
Final Score: Republic of Ireland 1-3 Croatia (Mandzukic 3', 48', St Ledger 19', Jelavic 43')
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