IT WAS not the start we wanted. Ireland’s parade was well and truly rained on as a brace from Mario Mandzukić either side of Nikica Jelavic’s strike ensured Giovanni Trapattoni’s side are now fighting for their Euro 2012 lives.
Sean St Ledger’s equaliser gave the vast Irish contingent cause for optimism but Croatia’s second and third goals, either side of the break, gave Slaven Bilic’s men the points and saw them top Group C following Spain and Italy’s draw earlier in the day.
A downpour that began as the boys and girls in green arrived at the stunning Municipal Stadium in Poznan did little to dampen the enthusiasm as the teams were greeted onto the field by a wall of noise but the cheers were all Croatian just three minutes in when Mandzuki nodded his side in front.
Darijo Srna clipped a ball in from the right which was deflected by Stephen Ward into the path of the Wolfsburg striker. While the header seemed to pose little danger, Shea Given was slow to get down – perhaps affected by a calf injury that threatened his participation prior to kick-off – and the ball dropped into the corner of the net almost in slow motion.
This was a major setback for the Irish but on 19 minutes they had drawn level.
A free-kick on the left was awarded when Vedran Corluka upended Kevin Doyle and Aiden McGeady swung in a fine cross, which St Ledger managed to nip in and divert into the net.
As the ball was crossed in a whistle in the crowd sounded that was taken by most as the referee signalling a free-kick but after a 30-second delay it was accepted the goal was good and sent the green masses into hysteria.
With the self-belief having returned, the Irish were roared forward and their tails seemed to be up at this stage but it was not to be.
With the look of a team content with 1-1 at the break, disaster struck two minutes before the half-time whistle.
Luka Modric fired in a shot from outside the box that was deflected into the path of Jelavic by Ward and the Everton striker gleefully accepted the chance and chipped over Given to send the Croats into a 2-1 lead at the break.
While Ireland needed a solid start to the second period, the game was effectively wrapped up three minutes after the restart when the fell 3-1 behind.
Ivan Perisic swung in a cross which was met by the head of Mandzukić and the ball hit the butt of the post, rebound off the luckless Given’s head and bounced into the net.
Croatia were now in firm control but Trapattoni’s men thought they should have been given a lifeline on 63 minutes when Robbie Keane appeared to have been tripped by Gordon Schildenfeld but referee Bjorn Kuipers waved away the appeals from the baying Irish team and fans. This summed up Irish frustrations on the night as Croatia were able to coast home. Midfielder Ivan Rakitic could have made it four but he curled a 77th-minute shot inches wide while Keith Andrews powered a header agonisingly past the post at the death.
To their credit, the Irish fans remained until the death and continued to applaud the effort of their team but it was of little consequence as they fell to defeat for the first time in an opening game of a major championships.
The mood on the return journey back into the city was lightened by a chorus of Bobby McFerran’s 1988 hit, ‘Don’t worry be happy’, but unlike Ireland’s opening game in that year’s European Championships, there was little else to smile about.
Next up for Trap’s Army is a meeting with defending champions Spain in Gdansk today (Thursday) with a positive result vital if they are to have any chance of emerging from the group.
Ireland: Given, O’Shea, St Ledger, Dunne, Ward, McGeady (Cox 54), Whelan, Andrews, Duff, Doyle (Walters 53), Keane (Long 75).
Croatia: Pletikosa, Srna, Corluka, Schildenfeld, Strinic, Vukojevic, Rakitic (Dujmovic 90), Modric, Perisic (Eduardo 89), Mandzukic, Jelavic (Kranjcar 72).
Ref: Bjorn Kuipers (Netherlands)