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Croatia go home beaten but not bowed

What if they had beaten Ireland 5-1? What if Ivan Rakitić's header had evaded Iker Casillas? It was a case of so near yet so far for Croatia, but they depart with their heads held high.

Croatia go home beaten but not bowed
Croatia go home beaten but not bowed ©UEFA.com

Croatia's UEFA EURO 2012 destiny was uncertain until the final moments of their concluding Group C match against Spain. Right until Jesús Navas's last-gasp winner for the reigning champions, the Vatreni fans retained hope that their side could make it through to the quarter-finals. Ultimately, in spite of a creditable 3-1 victory over the Republic of Ireland and a 1-1 draw with Italy, the 1-0 defeat by Spain sent Slaven Bilić's team home. Things might have been different had Ivan Rakitić buried a wonderful headed opportunity, but alas, Croatia did not disappoint and leave Poland and Ukraine with their heads held high.

In a nutshell
Despite losing their final group game against Spain, it was probably the best Croatia played all tournament. The first half against Italy was poor, yet in the second period their performance improved and they could easily have sewn up a quarter-final spot there and then. Instead, a 1-1 draw with the Azzurri and subsequent reverse to La Roja meant it was Croatia who ended up the tragic heroes of a tightly contested group.

High point
Croatia did not get through, yet everyone is satisfied – and so they should be. The side played good football, their attitude and the atmosphere were fantastic and with a bit more luck they would have made the quarter-finals. The 3-1 opening win against Ireland was perhaps the best illustration of the team's attacking prowess.

Key man
Mario Mandžukić – with all eyes on in-form Nikica Jelavić ahead of the tournament, Mandžukić stole the show with three goals in the first two matches. The VfL Wolfsburg frontman did not manage to find the net against Spain but the 26-year-old fought hard throughout and proved a constant menace whenever Croatia came forward. In many ways, it was Mandžukić who kept Croatia in with a shout of the quarter-finals for so long.

Hope for the future
Rakitić may be just 24 yet he is already one of his country's most important players. He was excellent on the right flank and improved further when Bilić moved him into the middle for the second half against Italy and subsequently versus Spain. He may rue the missed header against the latter for years to come, though hopefully his superb showing will remain even longer in the memory.

Vital statistic
The 3-1 triumph over Ireland. Had Croatia defeated the Irish 5-1, they would have required only a draw against Spain to qualify. Perhaps then Spain would have played differently and the pressure would have been off Bilić's men in that final encounter.

Final word
"Sometimes you need to be lucky to achieve great things. We did everything right but we didn't have the luck. Still, my guys did a brilliant job and I congratulate them."
Croatia coach Slaven Bilić, who is stepping down to take the reins at FC Lokomotiv Moskva, lauds his team.

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