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A 1-1 draw between Italy and Croatia set up an intriguing last round of matches in Group C, with Cesare Prandelli's side gifting Croatia a point after dominating most of the encounter in Poznan. Italy, much like their game against Spain, drew first blood against Croatia, with Andrea Pirlo curling in a trademark freekick on the stroke of halftime to give them a lead. But Croatia were allowed a way back into the game as the Azzurri sat back in the second half. It was an invitation that they grabbed with both hands, with Mario Mandzukic benefitting from a defensive error to find an equaliser and deny Italy their first win of the competition. As a result, Croatia now sit with 4 points from 2 games while Italy have just 2 from 2. The Azzurri will have to beat Ireland in their last group match to stand any chance of making it to the knock-out rounds.
Italy manager Cesare Prandelli persisted with his three-man backline, with regular midfielder Daniele deRossi starting alongside Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci after impressing against Spain in their previous encounter. Claudio Marchisio and ThiagoMotta were given the roles of enforcers in the Azzurri midfield, with Emanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio flanking veteran Andrea Pirlo ahead of the duo. Despite netting Italy's opener last time around, Antonio di Natale was left on the sidelines once again in favour of Mario Balotelli, the enigmatic young starlet starting for the Italians alongside Antonio Cassano upfront.
Nikica Jelavic and Mario Mandzukic, both goalscorers from Croatia's win against Ireland, started in tandem for Slaven Bilic's side, with namesakes Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic partnering Luka Modric in support of the frontmen. Ognjen Vukojevic was the most defensive of the four midfielders, playing in front of a makeshift centre-half partnership consisting of Vedran Corluka and Gordon Schildenfeld. Ivan Strinic continued at left-back, with skipper Darijo Srna lining up on the right.
Italy started the game on the offensive, and had an early chance through Balotelli, who did brilliantly to collect Giaccherini's cross from the left before shooting with his left foot on the turn, seeing his effort go marginally wide of goal.
The Manchester City man was involved in another Italian chance soon afterwards, seeing his strike on goal get blocked off and fall for Marchisio, who in turn smacked a ferocious drive from outside the area fractionally over the crossbar. The Italians were easily looking the better of the two sides in the early stages of the game, and tested Stipe Pletikosa for the first time in the 15th minute, with Balotelli's snapshot requiring the Croatian custodian to punch clear.
The Croats however had their share of chances as well, with Jelavic going down under Chiellini's challenge amid calls for a penalty that wasn't given, the forward soon afterwards trying but failing to reach a Srna cross before Italy keeper Gianluigi Buffon as Croatia tried to deflect the early pressure they were sustaining.
Italy were knocking on the door as the half drew to a close, with Croatia having Pletikosa to thank for keeping them on level terms in the 39th minute. The 33-year old custodian made a brilliant double save to deny Marchisio a goal, the Italy midfielder brilliantly turning past Srna in the box before releasing a shot that Pletikosa was out to block, and unable to direct the rebound past the keeper as well.
The Croatian resilience however was finally broken with four minutes left in the half, as a freekick of the highest quality from Pirlo gave Italy a much-deserved lead going into the break. The 33-year old, known for his deadball exploits, gave another example of his supreme talents, curling a splendid effort that went up and over the wall before dipping into the net, giving Pletikosa no chance of saving it.
Italy could have supplemented their lead before the break, with Pirlo's corner from the right headed just over by Cassano. The Azzurri ended the half with 11 attempts on goal to Croatia's three, exemplifying the vast difference of class between the two sides in the first period.
The biggest action in the opening twenty minutes of the second half came from the Croatian supporters who were lighting flares inside the stadium, as the game in itself went through a rather drab and uneventful period. Incredibly however, from completely against the run of play and with the first real chance that they created in the half, Croatia were back on level terms.
It was the in-form Mandzukic who netted his third of the tournament after some terrible defending from Chiellini allowed him in on goal. The Italian defender completely misjudged Strinic's delivery from the left and allowed it to reach Mandzukic, who had time to control the ball and finish past Buffon at the near post.
Italy had a chance to hit back right after the goal as substitute Riccardo Montolivo's strike from 25 yards called Pletikosa into action again, but the Croatian keeper was up to the challenge, dealing with it confortably.
It was a game of two halfs, as Croatia deservedly claimed a point after Italy started slacking after the halftime whistle to give themselves a strong shot of making the quarterfinals. The result was not the worst for Italy as well, the Azzurri needing to beat Ireland on the final day and hope for a Spanish win against Croatia to qualify.
Italy (3-5-2) - Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele De Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini, Christian Maggio, Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, Thiago Motta (Montolivo 63'), Emanuele Giaccherini, Antonio Cassano (Giovinco 83'), Mario Balotelli (Di Natale 70')
Croatia (4-1-3-2) - Stipe Pletikosa, Darijo Srna, Vedran Corluka, Gordon Schildenfeld, Ivan Strinic, Ivan Rakitic, Ognjen Vukojevic, Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic (Pranjic 68'), Mario Mandzukic (Kranjcar 90'), Nikica Jelavic (Eduardo 83')
Final Score: Italy 1-1 Croatia (Pirlo 39', Mandzukic 72')
File Photograph Copyright: 2010 FIFA World Cup
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