Croatia retained their spot on top of Group C by earning a critical draw this afternoon. Italy was the livelier of the two sides in the first half of play, but as the game grew closer towards full time Croatia had the upper hand and were nearly able to snatch a win. Neither team was able to find the decisive goal and the match ended 1-1.
Italy was unable to take advantage of a number of first half opportunities and it cost them two points in today's match against Croatia. Despite beginning the match with the upper hand and controlling possession for long periods, Italy's continued attempts from open play and corner kicks were repeatedly kept out of the goal by Croatian keeper, Stipe Pletikosa. Mario Balotelli had two early chances and was heavily influential in the early stage, but diminished as the game went on.
Antonio Cassano had several opportunities, one coming off a brilliant pass from Andrea Pirlo, only to have his effort turned aside by Pletikosa. Pirlo's influence continued throughout the match and he was certainly the top player on the pitch today. Claudio Marchisio was turned away by Pletikosa, who answered the call with two saves in rapid succession. The relentless Italian attack continued and they were rewarded shortly before the end of the half.
Andrea Pirlo became the first player to score directly from a set piece since Marek Heinz in 2004. Pirlo's free kick was a beautiful curling effort that glanced off the outstretched hand of Pletikosa before finding the back of the net. Pirlo's last five goals for Italy have all come off set pieces, and the midfielder's composure and presence are a critical part of the Italian squad's strength.
After limited opportunities from both sides, the Croatians settled into their own end and played for the draw. A halfhearted breakout from their own end was spoiled by sloppy possession from Eduardo, and their best opportunity at a winner was wasted. Croatia took to fouling Italian players whenever they threatened in attack and a yellow card was picked up by Schildenfeld for one such incident.
Croatian fans littered the field with flares several times during the second half. This prompted several match stoppages from referee Howard Webb after the Italian end of the pitch was immersed in a cloud of smoke. Stadium announcements made in several languages did not deter the Croatian faithful and they celebrated their draw like they had just ensured their advancement.
Despite only earning a draw, Italian manager Cesare Prandelli remains undefeated in his role. Slaven Bilic can be happy with the way his team responded in the second half after being thoroughly dominated at the start. Italy are now without a win in their last six matches at major competitions. Italy will need a win over Ireland and a win from Spain over Croatia to ensure qualification for the knockout stages. Croatia will need only a draw from their match against Spain to lock up their spot in the quarterfinal.