A late goal from substitute Branislav Ivanovic enabled Serbia and Montenegro to survive a rousing Croatian fightback and record a 3-2 victory in the opening match of the UEFA European Under-21 Championship.
Vladimir Petrovic's side had led 2-0 thanks to goals from Danko Lazovic and Goran Lovre at the Niederrhein stadium in Oberhausen, only to be pegged back by Eduardo da Silva and Niko Kranjcar. However, with four minutes left Ivanovic volleyed in Bojan Heziri's left-wing cross to secure victory in a hugely entertaining game, although Da Silva's late effort rebounded off the crossbar.
Lazovic was a serious doubt for the match after tearing a thigh muscle, but was sufficiently fit to take his place in the starting lineup. Despite the boost provided by their captain's fitness, it was Croatia who began the brighter, with Kranjcar and Goran Ljubojevic both going close early on.
Lazovic, Andrija Delibašic and Bosko Jankovic began to link up dangerously, and it was a one-two between Delibašic and Lazovic that gave the former a chance on the edge of the penalty area but he could only shoot wide. At the other end, Croatia might have taken the lead when a free-kick rebounded kindly for Ljubojevic to volley goalwards but Vladimir Disljenkovic was able to tip over.
Eight minutes before half-time, the Serbo-Montenegrins did take the lead. Bojan Heziri burst powerfully down the left and his pinpoint cross allowed Lazovic to glance a header inside the far post, giving Tomislav Vranjic no chance. The goal was the cue for scenes of jubilant celebration, but they should have been cut short in added time. Kranjcar headed a deep delivery back across goal but a diving Mario Carevic failed to convert at the far post.
Instead Serbia and Montenegro doubled their lead in the opening stages of the second half. Maric burst into the Croatian penalty area only to be brought down by Darijo Srna. Delibašic's spot-kick was saved by Vranjic, but Lovre reacted quickest to turn in the loose ball.
However, Serbo-Montenegrin celebrations were stopped in their tracks two minutes later. Ljubojevic flicked on a long ball and substitute Da Silva outpaced two defenders to slip a low shot beyond Disljenkovic and halve the deficit. The same player so nearly levelled moments later, but this time his shot span across the face of goal.
A long-range free-kick on 64 minutes caused confusion in the Serbo-Montenegrin penalty area before a grateful Disljenkovic gathered. Then four minutes later, it was 2-2. Babic cut inside towards goal and although his shot was charged down, the ball landed at the feet of Kranjcar and the midfield player beat Disljenkovic with a strike low to the goalkeeper's right.
Ivanovic's intervention ended Croatian hopes, however, and Martin Novoselac's side must lift themselves ahead of Saturday's potentially crucial match with Italy. Serbia and Montenegro, meanwhile, go into their game with Belarus in good heart.