Mario Mandžukic struck twice as Croatia opened their UEFA EURO 2012 campaign with a stylish victory against the Republic of Ireland.
A match played in incessant rain for long periods produced anything but a damp squib. Mandžukic, a focal point for Croatia throughout, struck as early as the third minute – the sixth-fastest goal in EURO history. Ireland rallied to level through centre-back Sean St Ledger, but Mandžukic grabbed his second after Nikica Jelavic had reclaimed the lead and Croatia never looked like slipping up from there.
Enjoying their first experience of a UEFA European Championship in 24 years, Ireland’s fans were in boisterous mood despite the deluge in Poznan, but Croatia soon rained on their parade. Ireland failed to clear a corner, Darijo Srna’s cross came off the back of Stephen Ward and – despite an untimely stumble – Mandžukic guided a precise header to Shay Given’s left, with the goalkeeper’s desperate clawed attempt not enough to keep it out.
The goal subdued the large contingent of fans dressed in green and Nikica Jelavic was nearly in straight away for a second, only to be denied by a wonderfully timed challenge from Richard Dunne. However, the Irish supporters soon rediscovered their voices as their team regained their composure. Damien Duff shot wide, Keith Andrews had a free-kick blocked and then, in the 19th minute, they levelled.
Vedran Corluka – only passed fit on the eve of the match – bundled over Kevin Doyle on the left flank and from the resulting Aiden McGeady free-kick, St Ledger lost Corluka at the back post to head firmly past Stipe Pletikosa. Croatia came back at Giovanni Trapattoni’s men, though. Given had to beat away Ivan Perišic’s drive, Jelavic headed just wide and Luka Modric fired straight at the Ireland No1. The pressure was building, and Ireland’s defence soon burst.
Another half-cleared corner came to Modric. His tame effort ricocheted into Ward who could only stab the ball towards his own goal – his second inadvertent assist of the night – and Jelavic was waiting to flick a deft finish over the onrushing Given.
If the goal came at a bad time for Ireland, just before half-time, Croatia were not about to let the lead slip this time. Three minutes after the break, Perišic’s invitation of a cross was met with glee by Mandžukic, and his powerful header hit the post, before striking the prone Given and cannoning in.
Croatia were playing on the break now, inviting Ireland on to them. Trapattoni brought on Jon Walters and Simon Cox, but apart from set pieces, Ireland were looking forlorn going forward. As their belief ebbed, Croatia reassumed their hold on possession. Ivan Rakitic shot narrowly wide and Mandžukic was a constant threat. Ireland supplied some late pressure, Andrews in particular going close with a couple of headers, but Croatia were good value for the three points and have the early lead in Group C after Italy and Spain’s draw earlier in the day.