Italians miss chances, settle for tie

Croatia's Mario Mandzukic (L) celebrates with Nikica Jelavic after scoring a goal against Italy...

Croatia's Mario Mandzukic (L) celebrates with Nikica Jelavic after scoring a goal against Italy during their Group C Euro 2012 soccer match at the city stadium in Poznan June 14, 2012. (REUTERS)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 6:19 PM ET

POZNAN, POLAND - Ask a dozen experts and you'll get a dozen opinions.

In the press room at Municipal Stadium immediately after Italy and Croatia played to a 1-1 draw in Group C, a bunch of Italian journalists were shouting at each other trying to figure out whether the point earned benefited Italy more than Croatia, or whether Italy was in a better position since it had to play Ireland in its final game while Croatia had to play Spain.

The argument was long, loud and ended when most of them threw up their arms and walked away in disgust.

Trying to figure out who is in better shape going into the final group games is like trying to figure out what number will hit in roulette. You watch the wheel until your eyes start to spin, but it isn't going to help figure anything out.

Play the game, spin the ball and see what happens.

After two games, Italy has two points while Croatia has four.

Croatia must play a motivated Spanish team. Spain will be aiming to win the Group and get a better draw in the next round.

If the Croats play the way they did against Italy, toss dirt on them and walk away. They won't win.

Italy gets the Irish, the weak sister of the group. But, with former Italian team coach Giovanni Trapattoni at the helm, the Irish will not give the Italians a free ride. But with a second-round berth on the line, the Italians should win.

The group is still wide open. That's good news for fans. No one will be taking a night off.

This was a show-me game for the Italians. They played well in their opener against Spain but there remained a feeling that it might have been a one-off deal.

There was no such feeling after they played the very tough Croatians, a team many feel could win this tournament.

The Italians were the better team. They created more chances, moved the ball better and gave Croatia no room for most of the game.

Italy's downfall was not scoring more goals on its chances. By the way, enjoy the bench, Mario Balotelli. You allowed too many good chances to go to waste.

The goal the Italians did get was a beauty.

Andrea Pirlo, who is playing as if he has fresh legs, stunned the Croats with one of his specials.

He curled a free kick just inside the post past Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.

There is something magical about a midfielder who can make a team dance to his tune. That's what Pirlo has done the first two games of this tournament.

He not only has made the other team dance to his very own tarantella but he's done a good job of making his teammates move to his rhythm.

It looked as if Pirlo's 39th-minute bolt from the blue would be enough to earn Italy the full points. Croatia had done little to threaten goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

But when you score only one, a tie is only one mistake away.

Italy made that mistake when it fell asleep defensively.

Ivan Strinic delivered a perfect ball that Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini mistimed his jump on. It landed at the feet of Mario Mandzukic who thumped a shot off the post past a helpless Buffon in the 72nd minute.

The checkerboards celebrated a point they didn't deserve.

Italy is no stranger to ties in qualifying games. It is the master of sneaking into the next round and making big noise.

This is a team that may be following that same pattern. But regardless of whether the Italians make it to the next round or not, they are playing the way the game should be played.

Croatia is no ugly-duckling dance partner. It is becoming a legitimate world power in soccer. The Italians made the Croats dance to the tune they played.

It's the kind of dance Italian fans want to see again and again and again.


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