REUTERS - Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic struck his third goal of Euro 2012 to earn a 1-1 draw against Italy who let their opponents off the hook after taking the lead in the Group C match on Thursday.
Playmaker Andrea Pirlo put Italy ahead with a majestic free kick six minutes before the break, rewarding their early dominance after they carved out a hatful of chances.
Slaven Bilic’s Croatia team have four points from two games in Group C while Italy have two points despite a refreshingly positive approach to the tournament.
Croatia, however, could find themselves in trouble after their fans repeatedly threw flares onto the field, at one point leaving a pall of smoke hanging over the penalty area.
Italy, with Pirlo pulling the strings in midfield and Mario Balotelli lively in attack, looked dangerous every time they came forward in the first half.
Balotelli fired wide after three minutes with a snap shot and should have done better when Antonio Cassano found him free on the edge of the area, but he dallied and his shot was saved by Stipe Pletikosa.
Shortly afterwards, the eccentric forward had another effort saved by the busy Croatia goalkeeper.
Midfielder Claudio Marchisio was also lively as he fizzed a 25-metre shot just over the bar and forced a brilliant double save by Pletikosa who dived at his feet to block the first effort and did the same from the rebound.
Another chance fell to Cassano who shot across the face of goal from Leonardo Bonucci’s flicked pass through the defence.
Fittingly, Pirlo broke the deadlock when he curled a
25-metre free kick inside the near post, with Pletikosa getting a hand to it but just failing to keep it out.
But they failed to keep the momentum going after the break, although Balotelli was close to a second goal with a ferocious 25-metre effort.
Croatia levelled in the 72nd minute when Ivan Strinic’s cross from the left picked out the unmarked Mandzukic who had time to bring the ball down and score off the inside of the near post.
Italy tired and in the end were grateful to hang on for a point.
Spain, who have one point, face pointless Ireland in the second Group C game later on Thursday.