Wounded Italy and Croatia face Group B showdown


Just another day: Italy defender Riccardo Calafiori and his teammates looking glum during training at the base camp in Iserlohn. Below: Old guards Luka Modric (right) and Ivan Perisic are still needed by Croatia. — AFP/AP

LEIPZIG: With wounds to dress and points to prove, Italy and Croatia face each other knowing their Euro 2024 survival is on the line in today’s decisive Group B match.

Italy’s chastening 1-0 defeat by a dominant Spain on Thursday and Croatia’s 2-2 draw with Albania after conceding a stoppage-time equaliser left both teams anxiously glancing at the table heading into their last game.

Italy, second with three points after their opening win over Albania, will be through to the last 16 as runners-up if they avoid defeat. They will be unable to progress, however, if they lose and Albania beat group winners Spain in the other Group B decider.

The situation is more pressing for Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia, who began the tournament with a thumping 3-0 loss to Spain and prop up the table with a point. They will go through as runners-up if they beat Italy and Albania do not beat Spain.

A draw, however, is unlikely to be good enough as no team have made the next round with two points since the Euro finals expanded to 24 teams in 2016 – offering a place in the last 16 to the four best third-placed finishers.

Italy’s loss to Spain prompted damning headlines and national soul searching.

La Gazzetta dello Sport denounced Luciano Spalletti’s side as “Little Italy” while Corriere dello Sport demanded a “Reset”.The loss was by a slender margin but it should have been far more emphatic as Spain’s 20 attempts on goal contrasted with Italy’s four, their fewest in a Euro or World Cup match since at least 1980.

Spalletti said his players lacked freshness, and wondered whether they needed more rest after Spain’s relentless attacks left them chasing shadows for most of the 90 minutes.

Croatia’s struggles have come as a surprise to coach Dalic, whose side reached the World Cup semi-finals in Qatar two years ago and the final in 2018.

“We didn’t expect to have such a difficult story in these two matches, it has been a struggle,” he said after their draw with Albania.

A major issue for Croatia has been their sleepy starts to games. They conceded three goals to Spain in the first half and fell behind to Albania with 11 minutes on the clock.

While their technical ability is not in question, having bossed possession against both Spain and Albania, they have seemed flat in the final third and been unable to build sustained pressure.

With midfield conjuror Luka Modric, now 38, converted full back Ivan Perisic, 35, and forward Andrej Kramaric, 33, Dalic has kept faith with the old guard that has served him so well in the past.

Yet this could be one tournament too far for a side who have frequently surpassed expectations.

“The World Cup was two years ago and slowly our players are getting older, and this whole tournament has shown us that everyone is having a hard time,” Dalic said. — Reuters

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