Man of the Match: Amid a number of standout performances from Croatia going forward, Mario Mandzukic’s will stand out. Goals tend to create that kind of effect. The Wolfsburg attacker scored in the third minute, his header finding the right post as Shay Given’s feet couldn’t get traction on the wet surface. To start the second half, Mandzukic pulled the same trick, heading to that same right post to give Croatia a two-goal lead.
NBC Sports: Croatia beats Ireland 3-1 at Euro 2012
Packaged for takeaway:
- Ruining his day, Mandzukic had to be helped off the field late, hobbling after contesting an aerial challenge with Ireland defender Sean St. Ledger.
- Mandzukic wasn’t the only Croatian attacker who stood out. In fact, they all did. Nikica Jelavic poached a goal and contributed with some good hold up and distribution. Ivan Perisic was a dynamo coming onto his right foot. Ivan Rakitic provided some fine service from the right. Luka Modric dictated the game’s tempo, particularly after Croatia took their second lead. Darijo Srna and Ivan Strinic provided support from their full back positions.
- Srna starting at right back was a bit of a surprise. Croatia’s captain usually plays right back for Shakhtar Donetsk but is usually in midfield for Croatia. Today, he started in defense, with right midfielder Ivan Rakitic a mild surprise in front of him. Bilic put the duo out there with the idea that Rakitic could cut in, free up the flank for Srna, who could bomb forward having pushed another dangerman into the box. It was a tactic that worked well.
- But while Slaven Bilic can be reassured by his attack, his central defense was terrible. Vedran Corluka was solely responsible for the goal, giving away a soft foul that set up a set piece converted by St. Ledger (who Corluka was supposed to be marking). Gordon Schildenfeld was inconsistent challenging in the air against a team without a big target man, and as Ireland pumped cross after cross into the box over the match’s last 20 minutes, the Eintract Frankfurt man was nowhere to be found. Croatia have to get better play from their center halves if they’re going to challenge Spain and Italy.
- Ireland only allowed seven goals in qualifying, so to open Euro 2012 by allowing three in 48 minutes will be big shock.
- The first two goals came on the second ball in after a corner kick. It’s one of the most difficult and chaotic plays to defend in the game, but it’s also something every team works on at all levels. Giovanni Trapattoni will ask why Mandzukic and Jelavic were so open for their goals.
- On the final goal, Mandzukic simply won a ball in the air and converted. Coming into the game, Trapattoni would have thought that was a strength of his defense. Thankfully, neither Spain nor Italy are as likely to test his center halves in the air as much as Croatia did today.
- Going forward, all Ireland could offer (before Croatia employed soccer’s version of the prevent defense) was playing long to Kevin Doyle and hope he can draw a foul. It’s how they scored their first half equalizer, and getting nothing from Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff wide, it was their only hope of finding a second.
- Still, Trapattoni took Doyle off early in the second half, electing to bring on John Walters (who was never heard from again).
- Strangely (considering the result), Ireland seems a little better situated for the rest of Group C. If their main problem on Sunday was defending balls in the air, they’re likely to see far fewer against Spain and Italy, who also won’t have Jelavic and Mandzukic to target.
- Croatia, however, will face two teams that are far more adept at exploiting those central defenders, particularly with the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Xavi Hernandez pulling the strings in midfield.
- Croatia may sit on top of their group, but if I’m Slaven Bilic, I’m not getting much sleep tonight. I have to figure out if Corluka and Schildenfeld are my best pair going forward or if I need to dust off Josip Simunic or press Domagoj Vida into action. That means watching this game over and over until I’m ready for the team’s next training session.
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