The Republic of Ireland never recovered from a disastrous start to their Euro 2012 Group C clash with Croatia, Mario Mandzukic’s header putting his side ahead after just three minutes. Mandzukic and his strike partner Nikica Jelavic gave Ireland’s defenders a torrid time, with the 3-1 defeat leaving Giovanni Trapattoni’s men up against it if they are to make it through to the knock-out stages.
Ireland were given a loud and raucous welcome by their supporters before kick-off but the party atmosphere was punctured when they conceded early on. Although Ireland did well to claw themselves level, some sloppy defending, silky Croatian attacking and a tinge of bad luck put paid to their hopes. But what were the key talking points to emerge from this game?
Poznan turns green
Having waited a decade to see their side in a major tournament once again, the boisterous Ireland fans were determined to make the most of the occasion. They travelled to Poznan in great number and in great spirit – both inside and outside the stadium – giving the side unbelievable backing. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any louder, the incredible noise made just ahead of kick-off was surpassed when Sean St Ledger nodded home the equaliser in the 19th minute. Although that was as good as it got on the pitch for Ireland, the supporters stuck with them for the full 90 minutes.
Fast start from Croatia
Both sides went into this game knowing a win was vital if they are to qualify from a tricky looking Group C containing Spain and Italy. But while Giovanni Trapattoni stuck rigidly with his defensive 4-4-2 formation, with the aim of keeping it tight and nicking a goal late on, Croatia coach Slaven Bilic sent his team out to take the game by the scruff of the neck. The attack-minded Darijo Srna was pushed back to right-back, with a more advanced Luka Modric flanked by Ivan Pericic on the left and Ivan Rakitic brought in on the right, just behind strikers Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic. Their positivity was rewarded with a flying start, Mandzukic nodding them in front three minutes in.
A game changing early goal?
When your formation is built around keeping things tight at the back, conceding an early goal is fatal to your hopes. Ireland set their stall out to be extremely solid with their two central midfielders, Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan, playing very limited defensive roles. When they, and Ireland, were forced to come out their shell, their creative weaknesses were also exposed. That said, you cannot fault the players’ battling spirit that will serve them well in their remaining group games.
Given their attacking limitations, set-plays were always going to be one of Ireland’s key weapons, especially as Croatia appeared to struggle when it came to defending set-plays. It was no real surprise therefore that Ireland’s equaliser came from a free-kick, with St Ledger taking advantage of some nervy Croatia defending to nod home at the far post. Ireland failed to capitalise on those defensive frailties for the rest of the game, though Andrews came agonisingly close to making it 3-2 in stoppage time.
I think it is fair to say 2012 has been a good year so far for Nikica Jelavic. After bagging a hatful of goals in the SPL for Rangers, he made a £5.5mllion move to Everton in January in order to test himself in the Premier League. Eleven goals in 16 appearances later, the 26-year-old arrived in Poland in as good as form as anyone. His instinctive, first-time finish on the stroke of half-time was typical of the former Rapid Vienna man and suggests he can be a real force during this tournament as well as for the Toffees next season.
After a 0-0 draw with Hungary last week, Trapattoni revealed he was considering a formation change after growing concerned at the level of possession his midfield was conceding. Darron Gibson was a contender to come into the starting line-up, perhaps at the expense of Kevin Doyle, in a 4-5-1 formation. However, Trapattoni elected to stick with his original selection – was that a critical mistake?
Luck of the Irish?
Ireland were left to rue some key moments going against them at crucial times of the game. For Croatia’s third goal, Shay Given was left cursing his luck when Mandzukic’s header came off the post and smacked into the back of his head and over the line for an own goal. Then, midway through the second half, Robbie Keane appeared to be fouled in the box following a clumsy challenge from Gordon Schildenfeld. Referee Viktor Shvetsov said no penalty, but replays suggest Ireland have every right to feel aggrieved.
He may have been pushed back to right-back at the start but Srna played a key role in many of Croatia’s attacks. The first two goals both stemmed from his side of the field and his rampaging runs forward caused the Irish defence all sorts of problems. You can see why Bilic often plays him further up field.