Italy are still waiting for their first win against Croatia and their first win in this tournament. They seemed to have done enough to secure three points when they held a first-half lead until 18 minutes from the end, though they never played with much assurance and could not complain when the Croatians came back at them to snatch a draw with Mario Mandzukic's well-taken equaliser.
Slaven Bilic's side now have four points from their first two games, with Spain to come in the final group match. Italy have just two, but will hope to gain their all important win against Ireland and trust nothing fishy happens in the other game.
"We don't need to think about the Spain-Croatia game yet," Cesare Prandelli said. "All the games are fair in this tournament. I'm sure everyone will be trying to win."
Prandelli conceded that Italy had fared less well in trying to beat Croatia than they had in merely containing Spain in the first game, and also accepted that tiredness appeared to be a problem. "I don't think we lack character, but we seem to struggle going into the last half hour of games," the Italy coach said.
"We need to try and manage our energy levels. We lacked fresh legs late on. Mario Balotelli played well in the first half, made some good runs, but he was struggling in the second half. We must rest up now, then we will be ready to play for 90 minutes. We should have killed off the game but I'm not angry, just a little bitter because they only had one chance, one cross, and it ruined everything we had built up. But that's football. We can still get through, we are not mathematically out of it, but this was a wasted opportunity."
Bilic complained about Howard Webb's refereeing, claiming Nikica Jelavic should have had a penalty and the free kick from which Italy scored was not a foul, but otherwise he pronounced himself satisfied. "It is never easy against big teams but we were waiting for our chance," the Croatia coach said. "We can play better, but after two matches we are in a really good situation. I would have settled beforehand for four points. I am very optimistic for the rest of the tournament."
Italy took the lead six minutes before half-time and with the first goal of Euro 2012 direct from a free kick. Andrea Pirlo's effort from just beyond the angle of the area after Balotelli had been fouled cleared the Croatia wall and came down sharply to catch out Stipe Pletikosa, who got a hand to the ball but was beaten low down to his right. For his next trick Pirlo supplied Antonio Cassano with a near-post header from a corner, only to see the ball clear the bar by a couple of feet.
It was significant that both the goal and the next best chance in the first half came from set pieces. Prandelli did not change his lineup after all and Cassano linked quite well with Balotelli in the early stages, though considering they knew they had to try and win the game, Italy's attacking was not particularly fluent.
Balotelli missed a few early opportunities to exploit hesitancy in the Croatia defence and Cassano rolled a shot across goal, but that was about it until Pletikosa was called upon a minute before Pirlo's goal to make a double save from Claudio Marchisio. Cassano's pass seemed to be intended for Balotelli but fell neatly into the midfielder's path, yet though Marchisio reacted quickly he was not as quick as the goalkeeper in leaving his line.
Croatia played the first half as if a draw would suit them, surprisingly since they had a fair share of possession and territory and even one or two chances to score. Gianluigi Buffon was not exactly overworked in the Italy goal, though when Jelavic got within inches of turning in a right-wing cross from Darijo Srna at the near post midway through the first half it represented the best opportunity of the game, at that stage, from open play.
Croatian attacking intent appeared to have subsided altogether in the second half, unless you counted a couple of optimistic solo attempts from Luka Modric, with only Mandzukic looking full of running in the top half of the field, although he was chronically short of support.
Balotelli came closest to an Italian second with a rising drive over the bar before making way for Antonio Di Natale for the last 22 minutes, a substitution that earned boos from the crowd, but from the Croatian supporters rather than the Italian.
Then, just as Prandelli was contemplating his third substitution, Daniel Pranjic came on and changed the game for Croatia, sending over a deep cross from the left that Mandzukic controlled expertly and held off Giorgio Chiellini to score from a narrow angle off the underside of the bar. Cue riotous Croatian celebrations, and more flares on the pitch for Webb to deal with. Fireworks apart, it was real flair this game was lacking.
"We should have killed off the game when we were in charge," Pirlo said afterwards. "We could have won, we had chances but we couldn't put the ball in the back of the net. We dropped too deep in the second half but we still have a chance to get through. Monday is a must-win game now."