Croatia delighted their army of travelling fans on Thursday by staying top of Group C after coming from behind to draw 1-1 with Italy in Euro 2012.
Mario Mandzukic – who scored two in their 3-1 opening win over the Republic of Ireland – was once again the hero, when he fired past Gianluigi Buffon from close range on 72 minutes after slipping his marker at the back post.
Croatia have received an increasing amount of support at the competition and an estimated 15,000 Croats flocked to Poznan, in western Poland, to see if the group leaders could overcome the Azzurri.
But until Mandzukic’s goal, the fans in chequer-board red and white were subdued after Andrea Pirlo put Italy ahead in the 39th minute, curling in a sublime free-kick that dipped over the Croatia wall and gave goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa no chance.
The goal followed a build-up of pressure from Cesare Prandelli’s side, with Mario Balotelli going close on two occasions and Claudio Marchisio forcing Pletikosa into a fine double save.
Italy, who drew 1-1 with Spain in their opening game, had been looking for victory to ensure they face Ireland in the final group game on June 18 with their destiny in their own hands, rather than having to rely on the Spain-Croatia result.
World Cup winners Spain were favourites for Thursday’s late match in Gdansk, with Ireland largely made up of ageing veterans and players from the less fashionable clubs in English football rather than Real Madrid “Galacticos” and Barcelona stars.
But Ireland’s veteran coach Giovanni Trapattoni was banking on a combination of characteristic fighting spirit and football’s unpredictability to pull off a shock.
“We have another 90 minutes coming. We have to believe. Every game in this Euro could be a surprise. We have to believe this,” the Italian said.
Spain manager Vincente Del Bosque was displeased with his team’s performance against Italy but insisted: “Our morale is intact. I think we are in a good moment and in a good position following the draw with Italy.”
UEFA, meanwhile, announced fresh disciplinary proceedings against Germany after fans set off and threw fireworks during the country’s 2-1 win over the Netherlands, the governing body said on Thursday.
The German football association (DFB) had earlier been fined $12,500 after missiles were thrown onto the pitch during the country’s opening match with Portugal, which they won 1-0. Portugal were also fined fined for a delay to kick-off in the game.
The fine imposed on the DFB is a fraction of the $151,000 imposed on Russia after its fans lit and threw fireworks during the game with the Czech Republic last Friday, which also saw stadium stewards beaten up and inflammatory nationalist flags.
UEFA threatened to deduct six points from Russia’s next European championship qualifying campaign if there were any repeat of the crowd trouble.