A good result, this for Croatia. Italy’s midfield trio of Pirlo, Purlo and Pairlo, combined with the rugged centre-back pairing of Chiellini and Collini, would have presented a challenge to Spain at their best. But Croatia overcame the odds – themselves helped by defensive duo Caluka and Corluka – and, after being second best for much of the first half, were worth their point in what was yet another quite entertaining encounter in a quite enjoyable tournament. Of course, Italy’s greater numbers were entirely a product of the BBC commentary team’s David Pleat-like pronunciation skills. Both Simon Brotherton and Mark Bright had difficult afternoons. But it didn’t detract from an excellent exposition of the “game of two halves” theory.
In the first 45 minutes, Italy were every bit as good as they were in their sumptuous opening draw with Spain. After the break, Croatia did enough to justify studio pundit Alan Pardew’s view that “a very good side will go missing from this group.” He was thought not to be referring to Ireland. Whilst never quite being on the sort of “same wavelength” as football’s best strike partnerships, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano have been a joy to watch. Balotelli has got his head down for the right reasons and has worked hard for the team. Cassano has shown the sort of form he’s threatened for years with a real “number ten” performance. But the Pirlo triplets took the first-half plaudits from the experts. The “midfield metronome,” Brotherton called him, not many minutes after explaining how calm and laid back he was in both Italy’s midfield and in interviews.
But before I could grasp the concept of a laid-back metronome, Brotherton was singing “the midfield metronome scores,” as Pirlo curled and dipped a free-kick into the bottom corner of the net from just outside the box – possibly the first time anyone has ever heard that phrase and possibly something Brotherton contrived to say for a bet. This was the first goal scored direct from a free-kick at the Euros since 2004, mainly because the “Tango 2” ball in use is truer in flight than the controversial heat-seeking missiles which have masqueraded as tournament balls in recent international finals. That said, it wasn’t quite the “Purlo pearler” Brotherton made out, with repeated references to the ball going “up and over” the wall exposed as fallacies by accompanying pictures of the ball flying past Ivan Ratikic’s left ear.
Moments before the goal, Bright had suggested that the game was “balancing out a bit more.” But Italy created chance-upon-chance after their closest shave at the other end, Nikica Jelavic’s air-shot from a yard-and-a-half. Cassano created Italy’s best chance with an excellent through ball to Claudio Marchisio, whose first touch and left-foot shot was worthy of a goal… until Croat custodian Stipe Pletikosa pulled off the save of the tournament and followed it up with the second or third-best save of the tournament as Marchisio tried to force home the rebound. Italy’s Thiago Motta was at the centre of a few storms after the break. He was booked by the over-fussy and inconsistent referee for an attempted strangulation of Jelavic as the pair waited for a corner – the Gods alone know how that might have developed had the ball actually come into the box (and there was a tension-packed silence from the commentary box, possibly while the inappropriately-named Bright contemplated whether to ask why it wasn’t a penalty). And moments later, Motta was flattened in an incident described by Brotherton as “a long way from the ball.” Slow motion replays showed Croatia’s Darijo Srna catching Motta with his elbow as he…er… headed the ball. Not such a “long way” from it, then. The ref, of course, didn’t see it. But as it was England’s Howard Webb, his foibles and failings passed largely without comment.
Aside from one thrilling snapshot from the still fitfully dangerous Balotelli, Italy threatened far less, and not because they were stereotypically “holding onto a 1-0 lead… it’s what the Italians do,” as Gary Lineker suggested after the match. “Or at least it’s what they did,” he added. Bright suggested that Croatia’s equaliser had “been coming” before Mario Mandzukic nipped in behind the poorly-positioned Chiellini/Collini and rifled home the 72nd-minute equaliser off the post from Ivan Strinic’s left-wing cross. And, for once, Bright was right. Italy’s “impact sub” Antonio Di Natale had no impact whatsoever. But fortunately, if somewhat curiously, Croatia seemed as happy with the point as the Italians. The “disappearing” good side will possibly be Spain. But Italy would have to dismantle Ireland in their last group game and Croatia would have to take a point off Spain in theirs, which seems a tall order after Spain… er… dismantled Ireland. So the “disappearing” good side will probably be Croatia. And that’s a shame.
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