Italy impressed in a 1-1 draw away to Croatia, but Gigi Buffon parried a penalty and there was huge controversy.
There’s good news from elsewhere, as Norway drew 0-0 with Azerbaijan.
Only two points separated these sides at the top of Group H going in, but the tie at the Stadion Poljud in Split was played behind closed doors following crowd trouble. They drew 1-1 at San Siro in November and were both unbeaten, albeit with numerous injury problems.
Marco Verratti, Daniele De Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Simone Zaza missed out for the visitors, while Luka Modric, Dejan Lovren, Nikica Jelavic and suspended Vedran Corluka were unavailable. In the circumstances, Antonio Conte unveiled a new 4-3-3 system.
It was a dismal start, as Roma defender Davide Astori gave a way a penalty for a futile trip on Darijo Srna. However, Gigi Buffon made up for his howler the last time these sides met by parrying the Mario Mandzukic spot-kick.
There was a frankly bizarre series of events that led to the deadlock being broken in extremely controversial fashion. Stephan El Shaarawy tapped in from eight yards and saw his goal incorrectly ruled offside. While the Italy players continued protesting to the officials, Croatia resumed play and scored on the counter-attack with Mandzukic.
The Azzurri and especially Conte were absolutely furious, but they should’ve been paying attention to what was happening behind them.
Croatia almost netted on another counter-attack, but Ivica Olic came sliding in a moment too late to meet Ivan Perisic’s low cross from five yards.
Astori let Mandzukic run from midfield into the box, but Lorenzo De Silvestri bravely blocked Inter’s Mateo Kovacic from scoring a second goal. The Sampdoria right-back sprained his knee in the process and had to be stretchered off.
El Shaarawy passed it straight to the goalkeeper from 12 yards after a good Claudio Marchisio and Pellè combination.
Pirlo’s free kick found a Pellè header, which was blocked off by a raised Mandzukic arm for a penalty. Candreva stepped up and drew the Azzurri level with a cheeky Panenka-style chipped effort.
Pellè forced Danijel Subasic into a tough save at the near post when running on to a long ball over the top.
Buffon was hobbling throughout the first half and had to be substituted during the break with a large cut to his knee.
El Shaarawy and Brozovic were off target, while Andrea Pirlo fired over after some spectacular work from Candreva to keep the ball in play with a cheeky flick.
Marco Parolo wasted a golden opportunity as, like El Shaarawy in the first half, he scuffed a weak effort straight at the goalkeeper.
Napoli’s Ivan Perisic smashed a screamer wide from distance and Rakitic turned over at the end of a good passing move.
For the final 10 minutes, Conte moved to a 5-4-1 system to protect the point. Referee Martin Atkinson continued to have a shocking game, giving a free kick for handball when Pellè clearly chested it.
Croatia captain Srna was fortunate to avoid a second yellow card for barging into Marchisio, but didn’t take the hint and 20 seconds later repeated the same foul for an inevitable dismissal.
Scorers: Mandzukic 11 (C), Candreva pen 36 (I)
Croatia: Subasic; Srna, Vida, Schildenfeld, Pranjic (Vrsaljko 72); Rakitic, Brozovic; Perisic, Kovacic (Leovac 92), Olic (Rebic 46); Mandzukic
Italy: Buffon (Sirigu 46); De Silvestri (De Sciglio 28), Bonucci, Astori, Darmian; Parolo, Pirlo, Marchisio; Candreva, Pellè, El Shaarawy (Ranocchia 80)
Ref: Atkinson (ENG)
Saved penalty: Mandzukic 7 (C)
Sent off: Srna 90 (C)