The Republic of Ireland suffered an opening night defeat in EURO 2012 going down by three goals to one against Croatia in the Municipal Stadium in Poznan. A third minute goal from Mario Mandzukic was cancelled out 16 minutes later thanks to a Sean St Ledger header but goals a few minutes either side of half time were enough to give Slaven Bilic's team all three points.
One could have been mistaken for thinking this was a home match for Ireland as the sizable Irish crowd created an amazing atmosphere before kick-off. What was also noticeable was that there was no segregation whatsoever of fans. Irish and Croatians mixed happily together without a hint of trouble between opposing sets of supporters.
Despite being vastly outnumbered in terms of support, Croatia dominated the early stages and Mario Mandžuki? gave the former Yugoslav state the lead inside three minutes when left unmarked from a corner. His 15 yard header eluded Keith Andrews who appeared to ‘leave’ the ball to goalkeeper Shay Given, who got a hand on it, but couldn’t prevent the ball from hitting the inside of the side netting. A very soft goal to concede.
Ireland’s first chance of the game came on 11 minutes when Andrews smashed a free kick from 20 yards straight and low into the wall. A waste of a good opportunity.
Kevin Doyle was his usual effervescent self and won a number of free kicks as his marker Ivan Rakitic struggled to keep tabs on him. Ireland would reap the ultimate benefit from one of those free kicks. Aiden McGeady whipped a fantastic inswinging ball into the danger zone, where Sean St. Ledger outmuscled his man to direct his header home from six yards .
Given was at full stretch from a 20 yard Ivan Periši? piledriver midway through the half of what had become an entertaining and open game.
McGeady played in another teasing ball from the left on 28 minutes which only barely eluded the head of Stephen Ward at the back post with goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa stranded.
Luka Modric then blasted a 25 yard effort which stung the palms of Shay Given. If it had not been central, the Donegal man could have been in trouble.
Nikica Jelavic and Perisic then played a lovely one-two with the latter slamming a 20 yard volley a yard wide and over Given’s crossbar.
Croatia took the lead a minute before half time in controversial circumstances. A combination of an initial offside and a foul on Stephen Ward went unnoticed as the Irish defender's misdirected clearance fell to Nikica Jelavic who took his chance with aplomb by dinking the ball over the advancing Shay Given from eight yards out.
The second half started with no change to either line up. Croatia extended their lead within five minutes of the re-start as another Manduzivic header smacked the inside of the butt of the post before hitting the prostrate Shay Given on the head and bouncing into the corner of the net.
They could have extended their lead further but Darijo Srna’s volley from the edge of the box was well blocked by Dunne on the edge of the Irish six yard box.
Eight minutes into the second half; Ireland substituted McGeady and Doyle for Jonathan Walters and Simon Cox, which meant they were now playing a 4-3-3 formation. Ireland had started to take the game to the Croats but there was nothing more than half chances for Giovanni Trapattoni’s men as Croatia, who had reverted to two banks of four, were comfortably holding Ireland at bay.
That was until the hour mark when Gordon Schildenfeld kicked Keane’s calf just inside the six yard box, but the referee Bjorn Kuipers waved away Irish penalty appeals. Having conceded a goal in controversial circumstances , this incident showed that the luck of the Irish had apparently left the building.
Trapattoni threw his last roll of the dice on 75 minutes with Shane Long replacing the Ireland’s all-time leading scorer, Robbie Keane.
The match was almost signed, sealed and deliver 13 minutes from time as Mandžuki? squared for Rakitic whose 18 yard strike across the face of the goal beat Given all ends up but also beat the outside of the post.
Andrews forced the Croat goalkeeper into rare action ten minutes from time as he glanced a 10 yard header goalwards, but the custodian got down well to save at his left hand post.
Arsenal star Eduardo then came on for Perisic on the stroke of full time as the game petered out for the Irish as the difference in quality of substitutions highlighted the difference in quality of the respective teams.
Andrews had a header from eight yards out which flashed fractionally wide but it was to be the last meaningful chance of the game for the Boys in Green.
A deserved mention however to go to Ireland’s fans, who kept singing and pushing their team on right throughout the game, with strains of “The Fields of Athenry” ringing out throughout the ground long after that final whistle.
Republic of Ireland: Given; Ward, St Ledger, Dunne, O'Shea; McGeady (Cox 53'), Whelan, Andrews, Duff; Keane (Long 74'), Doyle (Walters 53')
Croatia: Pletikosa; Strinic, Corluka, Schildenfeld, Srna; Vukojevic, Rakitic (Dujmovic 90 +2'), Perisic (Eduardo 89'), Modric; Mandzukic, Jelavic (Kranjcar 86')
Booked: Kranjcar, Modric
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (NED)
James Clancy is a freelance reporter currently reporting at EURO 2012. You can read more of his work and see more of his images from Poland on his website - http://hoogensports.com/