The tactically disciplined defending professed by Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni almost immediately betrayed the Irish yesterday in their match against Croatia. From the opening whistle, Croatia managed to put the Irish defense on the back foot. The Irish quickly fell behind following a failed clearance on an early corner kick that eventually led to a header from Mario Mandzukic that the sprawling Shay Given was unable to stop. The nightmarish start came only three minutes into the match, putting an end to Irish hopes for their desired 1-0 result.
The Irish responded by livening up their attack, focusing it down the flanks and pestering Croatian center back Vedran Corluka. Aiden McGeady's ensuing free kick found Sean St. Ledger on the far post, after the Irish defender beat Corluka and headed home the equalizing goal. The Irish contingent of the crowd roared their approval and this match boasted the best atmosphere of any match so far. Watching with my Irish-American family I can say the Irish fans enthusiasm was shared around the world.
The play went back and forth for the remainder of the first half, with Croatia enjoying the majority of the chances. Their efforts were rewarded shortly before halftime, as Trap’s side suffered yet another uncharacteristic defensive breakdown. Nikica Jelavic was sitting in an offside position when Stephen Ward directed a ball directly to the Croatian striker who finished with ease. Another opportunity Croatia was able to exploit to their advantage and they entered the dressing room at halftime with a 2-1 lead.
Shortly following the restart, Mario Mandzukic struck again from a header off a cross from Ivan Perisic. This time the ball struck the right post before deflecting off the head of Shay Given and into the net. Another unlucky goal conceded by the Irish, but Mandzukic was open in the center of the penalty area leaving nobody to blame but the Irish defense.
Overenthusiastic fans throwing flares on the pitch caused the match to be delayed, but when play restarted the Irish began attacking with desperation. Robbie Keane was denied a penalty shout after he was clattered into in the penalty area by Gordon Schildenfeld. No penalty was given and the luck of the Irish all seemed to be bad throughout the match.
As the match ticked into the final minutes, the Irish attack became increasingly desperate, playing long balls to substitutes Shane Long and Jonathan Walters. The Route 1 football did not yield any positive results, but it did force several saves from Stipe Pletikosa. When the final whistle blew it was Croatia that went out on top, 3-1.
Throughout the match, Croatia asserted themselves as the superior team. They were opportunistic and well organized in attack while remaining disciplined at the back after conceding in the first half. The result puts Croatia at the top of Group C, meaning that just one more victory could see them through to the knockout stages. On the other side of the coin, this may have been the only match that Ireland were capable of gaining a result and changes may be necessary if they hope to qualify against the difficult opposition of Spain and Italy that they still have to face.