Soccer-Zaccagni's stoppage-time stunner sends Italy through to last 16


Soccer Football - Euro 2024 - Group B - Croatia v Italy - Leipzig Stadium, Leipzig, Germany - June 24, 2024 Croatia's Josip Stanisic looks dejected after the match REUTERS/Angelika Warmuth

LEIPZIG, Germany (Reuters) -Mattia Zaccagni rescued Italy with a 98th-minute equaliser as the defending champions booked their spot in Euro 2024's last 16 on Monday with a 1-1 draw in a tense game against Croatia, whose tournament hopes are hanging by a thread.

Luka Modric gave Croatia a 55th-minute lead, moments after missing a penalty, and that looked like sending them through before late substitute Zaccagni bent a stunning finish past the despairing dive of Dominik Livakovic into the far corner.

The result left Italy, who next face Switzerland, second in Group B on four points, with Croatia third and waiting to see whether two points will be enough to take them through to the knockout stage as one of the best four third-placed sides.

"We deserved to go through tonight in terms of what we produced out there," Italy coach Luciano Spalletti said. "It was hard to make it through this group. Spain are brilliant, Croatia are excellent."

Spain, who topped the standings, beat Albania 1-0 to finish with a perfect record from their three games and leave the eliminated Albanians rock bottom with one point.

Albania's loss also propelled sides not in action into the last 16 with England, France and the Netherlands now guaranteed to finish at least among the four best third-placed teams.

Italy had been rocked with defeat by Spain, which could have been more emphatic than the 1-0 scoreline, yet if there was some solace for Spalletti's side heading into Monday's match it was that Croatia had been even less impressive at the finals.

The Croats' 3-0 loss to Spain and 2-2 draw with Albania had left them on the precipice and one of the main issues that had dogged them at the tournament - how to turn possession into a goal threat - re-emerged in the first half against Italy.

Croatia barely gave the Italians a kick for most of the first 20 minutes but it was not surprising that they only had Luka Sucic's long range pile-driver, which was parried over by Gianluigi Donnarumma, to show for their efforts.

Italy looked far more purposeful with Mateo Retegui having a couple of half chances before Alessandro Bastoni had the best opportunity of the first half, meeting Nicolo Barella's lofted ball to the far post with a header saved by Dominik Livakovic.

RELENTLESS NOISE

Croatia's fans provided an extraordinary backdrop to the opening 45 minutes with their relentless noise, flares and an ear-piercing firecracker, but it wasn't until after the break that their team started to repay them for their efforts.

The second half was only minutes old when Croatia were awarded a penalty. Andrej Kramaric's shot struck the outstretched arm of halftime substitute Davide Frattesi and while referee Danny Makkelie waved play-on the VAR sent him to have a look at the screen and he swiftly changed his mind.

Modric stepped up to take the spot kick but his effort was saved brilliantly by Donnarumma low to the keeper's left, although it was only a momentary reprieve for Italy.

Seconds later, Croatia's halftime substitute Ante Budimir's header drew another superb save from Donnarumma but Modric was on hand to gobble up the rebound, which he fired into the roof of the net to atone for his penalty miss.

That made Modric the oldest scorer in the tournament's history at 38 years and 289 days, but there was to be no lasting celebration for the Croatia captain.

Italy pushed hard for a route back into the game and substitute Gianluca Scamacca was inches away from connecting with a cross in the 87th minute.

However, with Croatia's fans starting to celebrate what they thought would be a victory, Italy struck a devastating late blow.

"Football was merciless with us tonight, it was cruel," Modric said. "It is hard when you lose like this to describe how you feel. The football gods don't always smile on us."

(Reporting by Toby Davis; Editing by Kebn Ferris)

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