Italy and Croatia played out an entertaining 1-1 draw here in Poznan. Andrea Pirlo’s wonderful free-kick gave the Italians a deserved lead at half-time. But Croatia re-organised and rallied in the second-half and they deserved their equaliser through Mario Mandzukic, who powered home his goal after surprisingly lax Italian defending.
However, it may be another Mario who claims the headlines tomorrow. Mario Balotelli gave a credible performance in attack for Italy, making some intelligent runs and getting into useful attacking positions, though his hesitancy on the ball cost him a goalscoring opportunity.
But Balotelli was clearly the subject of sustained abuse from Croatian fans, especially in the first half and when he was substituted on 70 minutes . Colleagues next to me in the press tribune claim their heard monkey chants among the boos from the Croatia fans. Certainly, Balotelli received more abuse – boos and whistles – than any other Italian player.
Was Balotelli being abused by Croatian fans because of the colour of his skin, or because they knew he has a reputation for being easy to wind up? One man’s booing can be another man’s monkey chant.
UEFA’s “additional assistant referees” could play a crucial role here. English referee Martin Atkinson was the goal-line official at the Croatian end during today’s game. He may well have heard racial abuse of Balotelli, but will he report to match referee Howard Webb? Is such action even within his remit?
Spain’s comfortable victory over the Republic of Ireland raises the prospect of another “draw” to eliminate Italy. At least that is what Italian colleagues fear might happen.
At Euro 2004, Sweden, Denmark and Italy all finished on five points, but Sweden and Denmark progressed to the quarter-finals at Italy’s expense following a 2-2 draw in their final group game.
Eight years later, Italy could beat Republic of Ireland and still miss out on the last eight if Spain and Croatia “manage” a 2-2 draw in their final game.
However, nothing is certain. If Spain and Croatia were to only manage a goalless draw, Italy would qualify (assuming they beat the Irish), and Spain would go through ahead of Croatia, courtesy of their better overall goal difference.
Pay attention, it’s all going to get very complicated.
It’s rare for Europe’s top clubs to sign players on the back of strong performances at the Euros. Few players emerge from nowhere to star at the Championship. Yet a couple of players who are making a name for themselves in Poland could be on the move after the tournament.
Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic has now scored three goals in this tournament. The striker is out of contract with Wolfsburg this summer, so his goals could not have come at a better time.
Another emerging star of the tournament, Russia’s Alan Dzagoev, has six months left on his contract with CSKA Moscow. Though he insists he is happy in Moscow, and there is plenty of money in Russian domestic football, a move to the west cannot be ruled out.
By Gavin Hamilton
* Gavin will be conducting a live web chat at worldsoccer.com on Friday 15th June at 2pm (BST). If there are any questions you would like to ask him about his experiences at Euro 2012, please join us tomorrow.