A spectacular Andrea Pirlo free kick was not enough for Italy, as Croatia fought back in the second half for another 1-1 draw.
The Azzurri impressed with their new 3-5-2 system when holding Spain to a 1-1 draw and kept the same line-up against Croatia, including Daniele De Rossi at centre-back, Emanuele Giaccherini getting his second cap and goalscorer Antonio Di Natale on the bench. Slaven Bilic also kept the identical starting XI that beat Ireland 3-1 on Sunday and had them top of Group C.
There were several thousand more Croatian supporters in the Poznan stands than Italian, so it felt almost like an away game for Cesare Prandelli. Italy’s record against the Croats was of three defeats, two draws and only one friendly win in 1942.
Mario Balotelli drilled wide in the opening minutes from a Giaccherini assist after spinning round in the box. The Manchester City man had another shot charged down, which ricocheted into the path of Claudio Marchisio for a screamer just over the bar. SuperMario tried to be generous and lay off an Andrea Pirlo pass for Antonio Cassano, but it was intercepted.
Mario Mandzukic just failed to get his head to a dangerous cross on the counter, but Balotelli was again involved by stinging the palms of Stipe Pletikosa from the D.
Nikica Jelavic fell in the box as a cross came in, but the free kick was given against him for a shirt-tug on Giorgio Chiellini. Moments later Gigi Buffon did well to capture a cross from the right that Jelavic couldn’t quite make contact with from six yards.
Ivan Perisic nodded a corner straight into Buffon’s arms, at the other end Marchisio won back possession and immediately sent it forward for Cassano, who squirmed between two defenders only for his pull-back to be intercepted.
Cassano set up another chance that Croatia desperately blocked shots from Thiago Motta and Marchisio. Cassano flashed an angled drive across the face of goal on 33 minutes after springing the offside trap down the right from Leonardo Bonucci’s chipped pass.
Another fierce Balotelli attempt was wide, but Cassano went so close on 37 minutes. Marchisio went clear on a splendid Cassano through ball, but Pletikosa was brave to rush out and close down both his attempts from point-blank range.
Italy’s pressure did pay off when Pirlo curled a magnificent free kick in at the near post with a slight touch off the wall, as Pletikosa saw it too late and couldn’t keep it out. It was Pirlo’s 10th goal in an Azzurri jersey, the first since September 2010 against the Faroe Islands. Bizarrely, it was also the first direct free kick scored at the Euros since Marek Heinz for the Czech Republic against Germany in 2004.
A Pirlo corner was nodded over by Cassano, who had a rare header at the near post. Mandzukic went on the counter for a low drive that Buffon smothered comfortably.
After the restart Buffon blocked a weak Luka Modric finish, who then blasted well over on the counter-attack. Leonardo Bonucci’s long-range attempt was deflected out for a corner with Pletikosa stranded.
Thiago Motta got a heavy elbow in the back of the head from Darijo Srna. Balotelli cut in from the left and smashed a rocket inches over the bar from distance, then Cassano wasted a promising counter-attack created by Pirlo when his first touch let him down.
Riccardo Montolivo was the first substitution, replacing Thiago Motta in the Italy midfield, while Croatia introduced Danijel Pranjic. Di Natale again took over from Balotelli, just as against Spain, but Italy were increasingly under pressure.
It was a warning and Croatia equalised when a long cross from the left went over Chiellini and found Mandzukic in the six-yard box in too much space, allowing time to control and fire in off the inside of the upright.
Play had to be halted when more flares were thrown on to the field, making visibility in the Italy box impossible.
Montolivo had a long-range snapshot that stung Pletikosa’s palms at the near stick, then Maggio fired wide when flagged offside on a Cassano pass in a very tight decision, but Croatia continued to maintain possession and the initiative.
Sebastian Giovinco was the final substitution for Cassano and immediately earned a corner with Pletikosa flapping away a cross-shot, then got Gordon Schildenfeld booked by turning on the turbo. Chiellini nodded a dangerous cross off the head of Mandzukic, as the Croats remained threatening throughout the second half.
Di Natale was halted for an incorrect offside position practically on the halfway line. There were six minutes of stoppages and Montolivo’s ball rolled across the face of goal was very promising, but Di Natale and Pirlo got in each others’ way. De Rossi stood his ground to stop a rapid counter-attack and Buffon fumbled a Niko Kranjcar strike, but was able to get it back under control.
Italy 1-1 Croatia
Scorers: Pirlo 39 (I), Mandzukic 72 (C)
Italy: Buffon; Bonucci, De Rossi, Chiellini; Maggio, Thiago Motta (Montolivo 63), Pirlo, Marchisio, Giaccherini; Cassano (Giovinco 83), Balotelli (Di Natale 69)
Croatia: Pletikosa; Srna, Corluka, Schildenfeld, Strinic; Rakitic, Vukojevic, Perisic (Pranjic 68); Modric; Jelavic (Eduardo 83), Mandzukic (Kranjcar 94)
Ref: Webb (Eng)