CROATIA PILED ON the misery for Ireland, beating them 3-1 in their Euro 2012 opener here on Sunday, with Mario Mandzukic scoring two in a stirring meeting that saw both teams battle hard from start to finish.
Keenly aware that on the road ahead lie heavyweights Italy and defending European champions Spain, both Ireland and Croatia had been clear that they needed a convincing start to the tournament.
Just three minutes in, Wolfsburg striker Mandzukic moved into position for a cross from captain Darijo Srna, stumbling briefly before steadying himself to beat Irish goalkeeper Shay Given with a powerful header.
Veteran Given – Ireland’s most capped player with 122 – appeared uncomfortable as he was caught off guard, conceding his country’s first first half goal in 15 matches.
The 36-year-old Aston Villa keeper had been a doubt because of a knee injury but after being able to train fully on Friday suffered no reaction and was cleared to play in Sunday’s match giving coach Giovanni Trapattoni a boost.
Croatia’s ecstatic fans let off flares to celebrate Mandzukic’s goal, and did so again to mark the ensuing strikes despite appeals from the announcer, meaning the team looks set to be the latest to be fined by UEFA for the behaviour of its supporters at Euro 2012.
Ireland, roared on by their fans, battled back.
They had a chance to equalise after winning a free kick on the edge of the area in the 11th minute when Gordon Schildenfeld fouled Kevin Doyle, but Keith Andrews’s shot was blocked.
Eight minutes later, however, came a repeat performance, as Doyle was brought down by Vedran Corluka.
Aiden McGeady stepped up to take the shot, firing the arching free kick to Sean St Ledger, who nodded past Croatian keeper Stipe Pletikosa.
That put a smile on the face of the Leicester City player, who did not score for his club this season.
Ireland’s green, white and orange-clad supporters responded by doing “the Poznan”, a backs-to-the-pitch jumping dance made famous by fans of the city’s top-flight club Lech.
The two teams continued to parry and thrust into the dying minutes of the half, until Croatia packed into the Irish area, with Ivan Perisic crossing to Ivan Rakitic.
A touch by Stephen Ward put Nikica Jelavic onside, and he beat Given in the 43rd minute.
Three minutes after returning from the dressing room, Croatia made it 3-1 when Mandzukic fired towards the far corner of the net.
The shot hit the post, but bounced off the lunging Given and into the back of the net.
Ireland and their supporters were irate in the 62nd minute when talismanic captain Robbie Keane – their 31-year-old record goalscorer who like Given is at what is likely to be his last international tournament – was brought down by Schildenfeld in what the video replay showed was the Croatian box.
But Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers refused to award a penalty.
Ireland came achingly close to an honour-saving goal in the 86th minute as they packed around the Croatian net, but failed to made good on the pressure they applied.
Ireland: Given, O’Shea, St Ledger, Dunne, Ward, Duff, Whelan, Andrews, McGeady (Cox ’53), Doyle (Walters ’53), Keane (Long ’75).