Ireland are effectively out of Euro 2012 after losing 3-1 to Croatia in Poznan. Mario Mandžukić was the hero for the Croats on the night with two headed goals as Slaven Bilic's side out-fought and out-thought the Irish.
In the run-up to the game, over 20,000 Irish people had descended upon the Group C clash, and as the teams took to the pitch, Croatia could have been forgiven for thinking they were playing away as the green crowd danced to "The Poznan" in Poznan.
However, Croatia settled the quickest and went 1-0 ahead after just three minutes through a combination of poor defending, poor goalkeeping and fortunate finishing. Wolfsburg's Mario Mandžukić was the only player to read a deflected cross, and his guided headed effort to the near post was left by Keith Andrews for his wrong-footed 'keeper, who could do nothing about the goal.
To their credit, Ireland fought back and dominated the next 20 minutes before deservedly equalizing through Sean St Ledger. But having scored, they stepped down a gear and allowed Croatia's midfield to dictate proceedings.
Playing a rigid 4-4-2 system, Ireland will always struggle against teams who play between the lines, and with Croatia utilising a 4-1-3-2 system, Luka Modric basically dictated the tempo of the game. The Croats, a big and powerful side, constantly went to Mandzukic early, and with the commanding forward having the better of Richard Dunne, who is no pushover, the Irish defence was essentially neutralised.
However, and it must be said, Croatia struggled to create chances, and with neither 'keeper having much to do, it was always going to take something special or something stupid to breach the goals.
Who will win Group C?
Unfortunately for the Irish, that happened twice in the space of five minutes either side of halftime.
The Croats' second goal was fortuitous to say the least, as firstly, Nikica Jelavic was in an offside position when Modric initially shot at goal and then, secondly, as Stephen Ward went to clear the shot, he was fouled by Mandžukić, which caused the clearance to bounce to the Everton striker, who calmly slipped the ball home.
But whichever way you look at it, the goal was a clear indication that Croatia were well and truly on top after Ireland's earlier effort.
If the first half ended in the worst possible manner for the Irish, then the second half continued in the same fashion with another poorly-conceded goal. Rakitic was given far too much room on the right by John O'Shea, and his whipped cross was met by the head of Mandžukić, who guided his headed effort onto the foot of the post with a sublime touch.
Unfortunately for Ireland, though, the ball cannoned into the net off Shay Given's head, and all of a sudden, Croatia found themselves in an unassailable and scarcely deserved 3-1 lead.
The lead was indisputable for various reasons.
Ireland's game is built upon keeping clean sheets—they had kept 11 in the previous 14 internationals—and scoring from set pieces.
Against a big and powerful side like Croatia, scoring set pieces was always going to be difficult, and having players like Modric, Perisic and Mandžukić—who was outstanding—they had players who were clever, intelligent and who could keep possession under pressure.
While Ireland's basic tactic of direct football was rendered null and void by the fact that they were not only out-thought but also out-fought, and what was most worrying for Ireland was how cheaply they constantly gave possession away.
After the game, a disappointed Sean St Ledger told reporters , "The second one was dubious, it could have been offside and we thought it was a foul. We had to come out in the second half and the next goal was important.
"It was unlike us to concede the goals we conceded today. It was unlike us the goals we conceded. I wouldn't say Croatia split us open but they were poor goals to concede."
The goals that Ireland conceded were unfortunate, and they had a very good case for a penalty when Robbie Keane was blatantly fouled from behind, but when all is said and done, Croatia deserved their win due to their quality of play.
They dictated the game, dominated possession and only relaxed when they had the game won.
Mario Mandžukić was obviously elated in the match zone after the game. "Is this the best match of my life? he asked. "I must thank the coach first because he gave me a chance to play and then I really played a good match. I scored twice but I also must thank my great team-mates.
"I still can't believe what we just did, it was a fantastic victory," Croatia coach Slaven Bilic stated after the match. "We knew it would be a tough match but we team responded excellently."
By contrast, the result could effectively have ended Ireland's participation at Euro 2012, as they play Spain next before finishing out the group with a match against Italy on June 18.
The psychological effect of this defeat is something that Ireland's manager, Giovani Trappatoni, will be sure to work on over the coming days.
"I know you want to know but we have to think about how the players are with their fitness and also Spain is another game. We have to think about it very much." he said.
"The team was ready but we conceded a goal after two minutes and perhaps Shay didn’t see the ball because there were three or four players in front of him. Psychologically we were inferior and we had no reaction"
The problem for Ireland, though, is that Spain and Italy, who drew 1-1 in their Group C game, were the two most impressive teams in the competition so far and that it will take something of a miracle for Ireland to get any kind of result when they face the two giants.
That effectively means that Ireland's trip to Poland and the Ukraine is over, which is unfortunate for their fans, because once again, they lit up a tournament, even in defeat.
Rep of Ireland
St. Ledger (6)
McGeady (4) [sub-Cox 54 (5)]
Doyle (4) (sub-Walters 53 (5)]
Keane (3) [sub-Long 75(4)]
Subs Not Used: Westwood, Kelly, McShane, Gibson, Hunt, O'Dea, Green, McClean, Forde.
Rakitic (7) (sub-Dujmovic 90)
Modric (8)(Y) (MoM)
Perisic (7) (Eduardo 89)
Jelavic (8) [sub-Kranjcar 72 (6)(Y)].
Subs Not Used: Kelava, Simunic, Buljat, Pranjic, Badelj, Vrsaljko, Kalinic, Vida, Subasic.
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