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The plot thickened in Group C as Mario Mandžukić fired in a 72nd-minute equaliser, just as Italy looked to have squeezed the life out of their UEFA EURO 2012 meeting in Poznan.
Having effectively stifled their opponents, Andrea Pirlo contributed one of the goals of the tournament to put Italy in front six minutes before the break, but a tactical switch breathed some fire back into Slaven Bilić's men, and having levelled the scores, they gave Spain a warning of the kind of physical test they can expect in their final group encounter in Gdansk.
With neither side making any changes from the starting lineups they deployed in their opening fixtures, it seemed fair to say that both coaches had been happy with their UEFA EURO 2012 performance so far. Yet while Croatia's front pairing of Mandžukić and Nikica Jelavić had bludgeoned the Republic of Ireland into submission on Sunday, they did not find it so easy to smash the locks off a more canny Italian defensive unit.
Indeed, that powerful pair were to see little action before the break, with Mario Balotelli signalling his intent early on with a turn and a shot which darted wide. Claudio Marchisio then sent a missile of an effort over the bar, before Balotelli fired straight at the goalkeeper when the ball broke for him in the penalty box. Croatia's corresponding chances were snatched and squeezed rather than hit with real conviction, Gianluigi Buffon's only real save of note coming from a 27th-minute corner, which Ivan Perišić generously nodded straight at him.
With Croatia looking increasingly stretched in defence, you could feel a goal coming. Antonio Cassano might have scored it on 33 minutes when he pulled a shot across the face of goal from a tight angle, and Marchisio will wonder how his name was not the first on the scoresheet after he spun into space only to have one effort brilliantly saved by Stipe Pletikosa, with the goalkeeper scrambling gamely to block again at the Juventus midfielder's feet.
As it was, Pirlo upstaged them all to score Italy’s 200th goal in all UEFA European Championship games, lining up a 39th-minute free-kick out on the right which dipped neatly over the wall and inside Pletikosa's right-hand post before the goalkeeper could get an outstretched glove to it.
Rising to the challenge after the break, with a rejig from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1, Croatia gained a little more leverage, and Luka Modrić made sure that Buffon was awake with a a near-miss from distance. Balotelli then responded in kind with a similar effort at the other end just after the hour – a sign, perhaps, that Cesare Prandelli's side had once more got their opponents' number.
It was a shock, then, when Mandžukić suddenly materialised inside the box to smash a hopeful-looking Ivan Strinić cross in off the far post with 18 minutes to go. It was the VfL Wolfsburg man's third goal of the tournament and having been kept muzzled for so much of the game, Bilić's side snapped and slavered for more. However, having been punished for their only real defensive lapse of the game, the Azzurri held firm, and will look to avoid a third 1-1 draw when they meet the Irish back here in Poznan in four days' time.
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