Before the game started, Croatia had a singer on the field and cheerleaders, too, dancing to rouse the supporters. Those in the stands did indeed sing, and danced with their characteristic fervour. In Ireland’s case, their cheerleaders were merely 20,000 supporters in the stands repeatedly chanting, “You’ll never beat the Irish!” to instigate the necessary atmosphere. For a time, it was deafening.
That chant proved to be a loud but empty boast.
This was not the glamour game on Sunday but after Spain’s 1-1 draw with Italy there was an awful lot at stake here. A winner would lead Group C, a powerful tonic to take into the next game, with Ireland playing Spain on Thursday and Croatia playing Italy the same day. Now it’s Croatia that goes forward with some confidence about emerging from this group and on to the quarter-finals. It’s simple – three points for a win and only one for a draw.
Sloppy defending by Ireland had them behind after three minutes. And the context to the goal would come to define the game – Ireland’s defending varied only from the feeble to the frantic. Croatia forced a corner, the resulting activity in its penalty area didn’t look dangerous for Ireland but Mario Mandzukic managed to steer his weak header into the net from 12 yards.
The goal was a shocking lapse, given Ireland’s results going into this game. Manager Giovanni Trapattoni stuck emphatically with the team that qualified for this tournament and the 4-4-2 formation used throughout the qualifying campaign. The record promised tight defence and fortitude. Nothing of the sort transpired here.
Well, maybe for 15 minutes the fortitude was there. Ireland’s equalizer was a classic Trapattoni tactic. Ireland was awarded a free kick to the left of the Croatia goal. Sean St. Ledger drifted in late and unmarked to meet Aiden McGeady’s cross. St. Ledger scored an identical goal against Italy in Ireland’s last World Cup qualifying run.
Try as the Irish might, however, Croatia bossed the game from midfield. Luka Modric was by far the most dangerous Croat player, patrolling the centre circle and spraying passes with unerring accuracy. Every time he collected the ball it seemed he could bamboozle Ireland’s back four. It didn’t take much.
Ireland had got itself back in the game with the goal, but another bewildering and serious lapse made Ireland look thoroughly mediocre. During some confusion in the penalty box, Croat Nikica Jelavic fired what looked like a desperate shot past Shay Given and into the Irish net. He was surely offside? The Irish players just stopped, but Jelavic was deemed onside and no amount of arm waving and puzzled looks changed that. It was just before half-time and the game was as good as gone for Ireland.
The second half had barely found a rhythm when a second Mandzukic header, which went in bizarrely, off Given’s head, sealed the night for Croatia.
In response to the three-goal deficit, Trapattoni did what he rarely does – he put more strikers on the field. Simon Cox and Jonathan Walters came on, and looked lively on entrance but nothing worked for Ireland. It had tenacity for a while but was soundly outclassed in technique.
Next, Croatia faces the two great teams of technique and guile in Spain and Italy. Those games will be far bigger challenges than this. But this team is capable of defeating both. Ireland can have few complaints. And its supporters really must stop chanting “You’ll never beat the Irish!” It`s so over.