Croatia fightback puts Italians on the brink

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Mario Mandzukic scored his third goal in two Euro 2012 games to leave Croatia and Italy’s quarter-final hopes on a knife-edge.

Croatia went into the Group C encounter knowing a win over Italy would guarantee them a last-eight place, but they were decidedly second best in the opening 45 minutes at Poznan’s Municipal Stadium.

Italy deservedly led at the half-time interval courtesy of Andrea Pirlo’s stunning free-kick, but were never the same attacking force in the second period, allowing Mandzukic to equalise in the 72nd minute.

With four points from two matches, Croatia face a challenging final game with world and European champions Spain.

As for Italy, who have drawn both of their matches, they know they will have to beat the Republic of Ireland on Monday to be in with a chance of a quarter-final spot.

Although Italy coach Cesare Prandelli remains unbeaten in competitive internationals with eight wins and four draws, he will feel this was a game that should have been won in the first half.

It was a one-sided 45 minutes and Italy were rewarded for their stranglehold when Ivan Ratikic fouled Mario Balotelli on the edge of the area, allowing Pirlo to whip a 21-yard right-foot free-kick over the wall and inside Pletikosa’s right-hand post.

It left Slaven Bilic’s side going into the break knowing they had to up the tempo and chase the game in the second half.

But the encounter turned scrappy, dominated by niggly fouls and challenges until, in the 72nd minute, Croatia’s two-goal hero from the 3-1 win over the Republic of Ireland struck again.

Ivan Strinic’s long ball was missed by Giorgio Chiellini, allowing Mandzukic to control and beat the advancing Buffon in off the right-hand post from six yards.

Croatia finished the game the stronger but failed to score.