With a patriotic rendition of Ireland’s National Anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann, belted out by the large following crowd that swathed the stand behind Shay Given’s goal in a sea of Emerald Green, Croatia kicked-off proceedings for Ireland’s first European Championship in 24-years, only their second ever, and their first international tournament in 10 years. Only three players in today’s starting XI – Shay Given, Damien Duff & Robbie Keane – were involved in the penalty shoot-out defeat to Spain in the World Cup 2002 second round.
However, with the heartbreak that ended the Irish’s last international tournament – a Gaizka Mendieta penalty – this one started, with just two minutes of the game played before Mandzukic had headed the Croatians in to the lead, in the most unorthodox of fashions. With a cross coming in, Given had re-positioned himself to the right and Mandzukic had stumbled to his knees; but, as the ball come his way, the Croatian rose to his feet to meet the ball and a limp header from just inside the 18-yard box was enough to open the scoring, with the Aston Villa ‘keeper already wrong-footed. Slaven Bilic’s intentions, outlined yesterday, were clear and had been acted upon early.
Now, the task for Ireland was to bounce back and bounce back quickly before Croatia could compound their pain further. With an unbeaten run of 14 and 11 clean sheets in the process heading into the game, a calming presence was still at play with the score against them. There was an air of stability among the players and their approach had not been altered.
With chances presenting themselves to the Irish, it was left to Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff to exploit the wings, with Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane fronting Giovanni Trapattoni’s 4-4-2. Doyle was playing much of his football with his back to goal and ten minutes into the game, receiving the ball to feet, the Championship striker was felled. Several players stood up to take the free-kick, but it was Keith Andrews who struck the ball and Pletikosa’s wall that blocked it. While efforts were high from the Irish, their players sum up the spectrum of quality present at such tournaments. On the one hand, Scottish-born Spartak Moscow winger Aiden McGeady roams the left flank for the Republic of Ireland, on the other hand, Andrews was League Two Player of the Year during Euro 2008 and was playing in the Championship earlier this season. The current home of Doyle and Stephen Ward.
Yet, minutes later, Corluka gave away a free-kick sloppily midway into his own half and as McGeady stepped up to float the ball into the box, it was the former Manchester City defender who lost Sean St. Ledger as he evaded his marker and rose high at the back-post to direct the ball goalbound and past Pletikosa. It was the Leicester defender’s first goal of the season, further highlighting the gulf in Group C, between World Cup and European Champions Spain and European minnows Ireland, with Birmingham-born St. Ledger never having played in the top flight of English football.
Now the scores were level it was time for Ireland’s unbeaten instinct that Trapattoni had harvested among his men to kick in. Given was enabled to rebuild his early knocked confidence with a top save from Perisic, who had hit a shot from long range, and despite the Euros having its first rainy game, the Irish crowd remained vocal and upbeat as Duff grabbed the game by the throat and pushed Croatia against the wall. This proved to be Ireland’s only spell of dominance and produced a chance for Ireland to take the lead when, 26 minutes in, McGeady replicated his earlier free-kick, but this time Wolves defender Stephen Ward was unable to turn it in.
Unable to make their domination count, Croatia punished Ireland two minutes before half-time to end the half as bitterly as it started for the Irish. With Modric composing with succulence, the men in green were on the back foot and with their defensive line pinned to the edge of the 18-yard box and the ball pinging about with no real authority being stamped on the game by the likes of Dunne, Ward fell victim to a loose ball, cannoning off his shin and into the path of Nikica Jelavic, who finished with his first touch. 41 of Jelavic’s last 44 goals have now been first touch finishes.
It would be unfair to Croatia to blame Ireland’s concessions on momentary lapses of concentration, but the third goal for the Croats came just three minutes after the restart. In similar circumstances to Ireland’s goal, a free-kick was crossed in from deep left and Mario Mandzukic, flicked it on, across the box and downwards far into the bottom corner of Given’s goal, bouncing off of the post, into the head of Given and eventually into the goal. It would be unfair, because Ireland continued be disorganised and unbalanced, relying heavily on Damien Duff for release down the right wing – the only Irish player to leave the pitch with any real credit.
Trapattoni began to ring the changes, perhaps to rest his star players in the faint hope of picking up points against the World Cup’s past two winners, but more likely to breathe life into a team that looked clueless and had lost any calming presence they had going into the game. Ex-Ipswich striker Jonathan Walters replaced Wolves striker Kevin Doyle and Simon Cox, who wasn’t even a presence in West Brom’s first team this season, replaced Spartak Moscow winger Aiden McGeady. Later on, Robbie Keane would make way for Shane Long.
Ireland had a brief chance to close the two-goal deficit on the hour mark, however it was perhaps justified that they didn’t. Having missed a foul on Mandzukic from St. Ledger, leading to the former to lay on the floor in apparent agony, Ireland broke up the field to the sound of whistling Croatian fans, and receiving the ball on the edge of the box and slipping in, Keane was felled by Schildenfeld, the subject of penalty claims, but the calls fell on deaf ears.
Suddenly the one half of England that had become Ireland fans for the night were retracting their support and criticising a spineless performance like the rest of the nation. ITV did their best to lift morale, panning the camera to Ireland’s finest blondes and brunettes, but nothing could distract from the monstrous performance the viewing public were being bared witness to. No, not even Slaven Bilic’s head provided comic relief. Okay, maybe it did a little.
Since McGeady had been substituted Duff was proving the only real threat to Croatia’s defence. Walters was holding the ball up well and was a strong physical presence on the ball; yet support was supplanted by a pressured Irish back line, leaving Walters often isolated, with Ireland’s defence sitting deep. The flashes Ireland did get, often came from the right, with Andrews the obvious aerial target and just after 80 minutes he missed a chance to convert from close range to make for an interesting last ten minutes.
Unfortunately, the score stayed at 3-1 and Croatia continued to dominate and expose Ireland’s lack of shape and organisation, with a defence looking fragile with every attack. Five minutes of added time were given, which reaped an Ireland corner, and, predictably, it was Duff who provided the opportunity to score a consolation goal, but Andrews wasted yet another chance, this time heading wide.
The full-time whistle leaves Ireland looking for their first Euro win since defeating England in their opening game of Euro ’88 that ended in a 1-0 win thanks to a Houghton goal 6 minutes in. Fixtures against Italy and Spain look unlikely to reap such a result for Ireland, but Croatia’s three points takes them top and a win in one of their remaining ties, or at least remaining unbeaten, would see them with a great chance of progressing to the quarter-finals.
Man of the Match - Mario Mandzukic