An assured victory took Italy into their third consecutive UEFA European Under-21 Championship semi-finals, and Serbia and Montenegro's simultaneous win against Belarus assured the Azzurrini of first place in Group A on head-to-head record.
Croatia, needing three points to have any chance of progress, dominated the first 20 minutes, but could not make a breakthrough and Daniele De Rossi punished them with what proved the only goal of the game. Simone Del Nero was dismissed soon after the hour, but Italy were tight enough at the back to hold on with ten men.
Captain Daniele Bonera returned from suspension for Italy and replaced Cristian Zaccardo in defence, but striker Alberto Gilardino was banned and Andrea Caraccioli filled in. Gianpiero Pinzi and Angelo Palombo took over from Giondomenico Mesto and Marco Donadel in midfield. Croatia had Darijo Srna suspended, and he and Danijel Pranjic were replaced in midfield by Marijan Buljat and Mario Carevic.
Carevic proved a useful selection, as he caused Italy trouble on the Croatian left from the start. Indeed, Croatia were rampant early on and confident Italian goalkeeper Marco Amelia had to make saves from Eduardo da Silva and Goran Ljubojevic in the opening seven minutes. Marko Babic was then sent away by Carevic, but Amelia dived to save his strong shot.
However, a free-kick on the Italian right conceded by Nikola Šafaric proved costly midway through the half. Del Nero's cross looped in and with three Italy forwards unmarked, De Rossi pounced at the far post to turn the ball into the net. It was against the run of play, but Italy found new belief and Croatia defender Dino Drpic had to block two useful Giuseppe Sculli efforts in quick succession.
Sculli, who scored both Italy's goals against Serbia and Montenegro on Saturday, sent in another fine shot after the half-hour, but the fortunate Marko Šarlija saved with his chest. Late in the half Del Nero curled in two more free-kicks, but Palombo headed over and Šarlija denied Caraccioli.
Del Nero dismissed
Croatia begun the second half like they had the first, but Italy were proving resolute in defence. Niko Kranjcar and Da Silva both went close with long-range efforts, and Croatia were given further hope when their scourge from free-kicks Del Nero received his second yellow card on 63 minutes for a foul on Vedran Ješe.
Italy sent on Marco Donadel to strengthen the midfield and withdrew Sculli but Ješe almost levelled as Amelia was only just able to turn his long-range shot around the post. Indeed, Croatia were keeping Italy pinned back, but the Azzurrini were well drilled and defending in two lines of four. Rarely could Croatia carve out a chance inside the area that would trouble Amelia, and despite some bright play in this tournament, join Belarus in departing before the knockout games.