Tomáš Necid came off the bench to score a dramatic late penalty and salvage a 2-2 Group D draw for Czech Republic in Saint-Etienne which denied Croatia an early spot in the last 16 at UEFA EURO 2016.
With an emotional Darijo Srna back wearing the captain's armband five days after the death of his father, Croatia established a swift control on the contest that looked set to hand them a comfortable win. As Luka Modrić prompted from deep and Ivan Rakitić added zip further forward, a knockout place alongside France and Italy seemed to open up for Ante Čačić's men when Ivan Perišić struck on 37 minutes.
Having already slid in unsuccessfully to cap a dazzling counterattack, the Internazionale midfielder bamboozled Tomáš Sivok with quick footwork and drilled the ball inside the far post after Milan Badelj had reclaimed possession. It was no more than Croatia deserved. And they doubled their advantage with an even more elegant finish, Rakitić clipping the ball delightfully over Petr Čech after being played in by Marcelo Brozović.
The Czechs looked destined for a second straight loss, but after Modrić limped off with an apparent groin injury, Pavel Vrba's side found their way back thanks to a pair of substitutes. Milan Škoda headed home to make it interesting. That was followed by a brief pause in proceedings to clear away objects thrown onto the pitch. After play had resumed, another replacement – Tomáš Necid – converted a late penalty following Domagoj Vida's handball.
Man of the match: Ivan Rakitić
How Rakitić did not finish on the winning side is a mystery, the Barcelona midfielder having stamped his authority on this match with energy and ambition – not to mention a superb goal. He had already tested Čech by that point and could have had an assist when Mario Mandžukić blazed over from a teasing pass. Ultimately, this was not Croatia's day, but Rakitić was a joy to behold.
Croatia's captain invincible
When Srna flew home following the news his father had passed away during Sunday's 1-0 defeat of Turkey, some wondered if his tournament was over. No chance. "My father's last wish was that I have to play here," said the veteran right-back, who sang the national anthem through tears and gritted teeth before putting in an accomplished performance. His 131rd game for Croatia may not have ended as hoped, but Srna is a man on a mission.
Vrba earns his keep
There was a slight surprise in the Czech Republic line-up as coach Vrba opted to leave Necid out of his XI, with David Lafata chosen to lead the line. Vrba knew what he was doing. Necid came on late having scored seven of his 11 international goals as a substitute – and he made it eight from 12 just three minutes later, in the 89th, with a superb penalty. All that after fellow sub Škoda had made the incredible revival possible.
Team reporters' views from Stade Geoffroy Guichard
Ondřej Zlámal, Czech Republic (@UEFAcomOndrejZ)
The Czechs needed to win but also avoid mistakes in critical areas of the pitch – and this did not happen. Jaroslav Plašil was caught in possession for the opener, and even captain Tomáš Rosický was guilty of wayward passes. Vrba's side showed more courage after the break, yet were running aground against a focused Croatian defence and conceded again on the counterattack. Just when all hope seemed lost, however, they mounted a sensational comeback to keep their campaign alive. Breath-taking stuff.
Elvir Islamović, Croatia (@UEFAcomElvirI)
If you thought Croatia played well against Turkey, this was fantastic until the late collapse. I can't remember the last time I saw such a good display from Croatia as they established their two-goal lead – excellent in all departments, with every player giving his maximum. Not only did they show heart and strength, they appeared tactically perfect as well. However, everything began to unravel after Modrić left the field, and all Croatia will be hoping his injury is nothing serious.
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