Croatia dealt a major blow to the Republic of Ireland’s hopes of reaching the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, beating them 3-1 in their Group C opener in Poznan, Poland, on Sunday, with Mario Mandzukic scoring a brace.
Keenly aware that on the road ahead lie heavyweights Italy and defending European champions Spain, both Ireland and Croatia had been clear that they needed a convincing start to the tournament, but only Croatia coach Slaven Bilic’s men delivered — to his palpable delight.
“My players have shown they can cope with the pressure and tension. Spain and Italy are favorites in our group, but I still think we are able to beat one of them,” Bilic said.
His counterpart, Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni, refused to be cowed by the loss.
“We have to believe. Every game in this Euro could be a surprise. We have to believe this,” the Italian said.
Ireland’s goal scorer Sean St Ledger was dejected at the final whistle.
“It was a poor performance by our standards and the goals we conceded were sloppy,” said St Ledger, who had not scored all season for his club Leicester City. “I’m happy I scored, but disappointed to have lost this game, as we had targeted this one in getting something from it given the two other games that lie ahead. Still we showed plenty of spirit towards the end and we can still hope to go through to the last eight.”
Just three minutes in, VfL Wolfsburg striker Mandzukic moved into position for a cross from captain Darijo Srna, stumbling briefly before steadying himself to beat Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given with a powerful header.
Veteran Given — Ireland’s most capped player with 123 — appeared uncomfortable as he was caught off guard, conceding his country’s first first-half goal in 15 matches.
The 36-year-old Aston Villa goalkeeper had been a doubt because of a knee injury, but after being able to train fully on Friday he suffered no reaction and was cleared to play in Sunday’s match, giving Trapattoni a boost.
Croatia’s ecstatic fans let off flares to celebrate Mandzukic’s goal and they did so again to mark the ensuing strikes, despite appeals from the announcer, meaning Croatia look set to be the latest to be fined by UEFA for the behavior of their supporters at Euro 2012.
Ireland, roared on by their fans, battled back and leveled in the 19th minute.
Kevin Doyle was brought down by Vedran Corluka and Aiden McGeady delivered a superb curling free-kick which found St Ledger running in at the far post. He made no mistake as he headed past Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.
Ireland’s supporters clad in green, white and orange responded by doing “the Poznan,” a backs-to-the-pitch jumping dance made famous by supporters of the city’s top-flight club Lech.
However, two minutes from the break Croatia restored their lead.
An unfortunate touch by Stephen Ward put Nikica Jelavic onside and he beat Given.
Three minutes after the break, Croatia made it 3-1 when Mandzukic fired toward the far corner of the net. The shot hit the post, but bounced off the lunging Given and into the back of the net.
Ireland and their supporters were furious in the 62nd minute when talismanic captain Robbie Keane — their 31-year-old record goalscorer, who like Given is at what is likely to be his last international tournament — was brought down from behind in the penalty area, but Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers refused to award a penalty.