Composed Croatia leave Ireland staring at exit door from Group C.
Euro 2012: Rep of Ireland 1 Croatia 3
After a 10-year wait, the Republic of Ireland only had 157 seconds to enjoy their first taste of a major tournament since 2002. Then it all started to go wrong. Horribly wrong.
Giovanni Trapattoni's team owed their presence at Euro 2012 to a watertight defence. Yet when it mattered most, they were both poor and porous. Having only conceded three goals in their previous 14 games, they let in three in 49 minutes. The first two were uncharacteristically scruffy, the third a decisive blow.
It was Mario Mandzukic's second goal, sandwiching a typical, one-touch finish from Nikica Jelavic, and it leaves Croatia the Group C leaders.
They can look down on the pool's superpowers, Spain and Italy, while the Republic of Ireland are already staring at an early exit.
Their game plan remains the same: to keep it tight and try to pinch a goal. Yet they trailed in the third minute, courtesy of the unheralded Mandzukic. A Stakhanovite work ethic has earned him his place in the side, rather than clinical finishing, but two chances brought evidence of his aerial ability.
First Darijo Srna's cross was deflected off Stephen Ward, sending it towards Mandzukic. The Wolfsburg forward improved a header that wrong-footed Shay Given. The goalkeeper got a touch to it, but not enough to prevent it going in.
Mandzukic's second may yet be debited to the unfortunate Given. He met Ivan Perisic's inviting cross with a header that, via the post and the goalkeeper, nestled in the net. Even if it took the indirect route, it was evidence of Perisic's threat. The left winger had unleashed two wonderful long-range shots, one saved well by Given and the other whistling narrowly wide.
Ireland had conceded, too, to a predictably predatory finish from Jelavic, reacting quickly when Ward sliced an attempted clearance into his path after Luka Modric shot. With the Tottenham playmaker, the impressive Perisic and Ivan Rakitic in midfield, plus Srna raiding from right-back, Croatia had the greater technical talents. They played on the front foot, Ireland, as is their wont, often retreating. They tend to play without the ball out of choice, but struggled to retrieve it in the second half.
Their first-half equaliser had come in familiar fashion. Set-pieces have long formed a key part of Ireland's attacking armoury and Aiden McGeady's free kick was met emphatically by Sean St Ledger, getting in behind Vedran Corluka. Indeed, they should have had another dead-ball opportunity when Robbie Keane was fouled by Gordon Schildenfeld in the penalty area.
Yet their appeals were in vain, their unstinting efforts to stage a comeback counting for naught. This was the game they probably had to win to progress but they were outclassed and out-passed. Having begun as underdogs, Ireland are now rank outsiders.
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