Mario Mandzukic
Mario Mandzukic celebrates the goal that makes him joint-top scorer at these European Championships. Reuters

Mario Mandzukic's third goal of the tournament was enough to give Croatia a share of the points against Italy in Poznan. Coming after Andrea Pirlo had given Italy a deserved first-half lead with a tradenark free-kick, Mandzukic's second-half strike ensures that both Italy and Croatia will go into their final group games with everything to play for.

But after fading late on for the second-match in succession, Cesare Prandelli's Italy will now likely have to rely on other results elsewhere if, as expected, Spain gain victory over Ireland later on Thursday.

All appeared positive at the start as Italy began in the same vein as their impressive performance against Spain. The Azzurri looking composed in their 3-5-2 formation and happy to pass the ball patiently before striking to find Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano peeling off their markers.

Balotelli, in particular, looked in determined mood to get his first goal in major championships and temporarily silence his eager critics.

As early as the third minute, the enigmatic striker came close to breaking the deadlock with a swift turn and shot on his left-foot that soared just past the post. There were further attempts, too, as Balotelli's hesitation allowed Croatia to get a block in before later hitting a powerful drive straight at goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.

Increasingly, though, it was Pirlo who was starting to run proceedings. The Juventus playmaker relishing Italy's system as players around him were constantly on the move providing willing targets to his incisive passing.

Cassano perhaps should have given Italy the lead as Pirlo got him in down the inside right channel, but on the turn from the corner of the six-yard box, the Milan forward dragged his shot across goal.

As he was against Italy, Cassano was again involved in much of Italy's good work. His ball to the forward-bursting Marchisio created a fine opening that took an excellent double save from Pletikosa to prevent from resulting in a goal.

But, despite his advancing years, Pirlo was again demonstrating that class is truly permanent. As Balotelli went down under a challenge form Ivan Rakitic 25 yards from goal to the left, there was an ominous air circling as the 33-year-old stood over the ball. And Pirlo did not disappoint, providing a wonderfully-familiar free-kick that whipped with pace inches over the jumping wall before dipping to beat the desperate dive of Pletikosa at his near post.

It was another Pirlo set piece that almost saw Italy double their advantage two minutes before the break. This time from a corner from the right, his pacey delivery found the head of Cassano at the near post, who was just unable to keep his header down.

While Italy ahd been good value for their lead, the half was not without encouragement for Croatia. Slaven Bilic's side had a strong spell in the middle of the period where they looked the likelier to break the deadlock. As much as Darijo Srna and Ivan Strinic's attacking instincts were leaving gaps at the back for Italy to exploit, they were also causing wing-backs Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini ample problems going forward.

Referee Howard Webb denied Nikica Jelavic a penalty as he tumbled under Giorgio Chiellini's challenge in the box from Strinic's center. While moments later Jelavic was inches away from beating Gianluigi Buffon to the ball at the near post from Srna's fine delivery from the opposite flank.

Consistently having two strikers in the box was undoubtedly a threat when Croatia had possession.

But it was also leaving them under-manned in midfield, a factor illustrated by Pirlo totally overshadowing his opposite number Luka Modric in the opening 45 minutes.

Bilic made a subtle switch to address this at the break as Rakitic came back into a deeper central role with Mandzukic moving over to the right and allowing Modric greater license to move forward.

The move had its desired effect as Croatia were quicker to pressure the ball and were able to get on the front foot with a greater stranglehold in the middle of the park.

For all their improved play, though, Croatia had yet to seriously threaten the opposition goal in the second period.

That changed in dramatic fashion as an uncharacteristic mistake from Chilellini enabled Croatia to get back on level terms. It was a familiar formula as Strinic put the ball in from the left and Chiellini failed to respond to the threat, allowing the ball to sail over his head to Mandzukic at the far post who took a touch before firing the ball in off the near post.

The half had plenty of drama, but it continued to lack the quality offered up in the first period.

A fact that was emphasized as Croatia spurned perhaps the best chance late on as Jealvic played an abject final ball with men free in the middle.

Italy 1-0 Croatia (Euro 2012 - Group C)

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Italy 1-1 Croatia (Euro 2012 - Group C)

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