Mario Mandzukic’s header wrong footed Shay Given and looped into the bottom corner after just two minutes to gave Slave Bilic’s side an early lead but it was quickly cancelled out by Sean St Ledger. A controversial goal from Nikica Jelavic on the stroke of half time restored the Croatian’s lead with the striker appearing to drift into an offside position in the penalty area as Steven Ward’s sliced clearance dropped into his path.
Mandzukic then wrapped up the victory with another early goal in the second half this time seeing his header strike the post and go in off the back of an unfortunate Given. Ireland toiled for a route back into the game but squandered the few chances they managed to create whilst Robbie Keane felt he should have been awarded a penalty after being fouled by Gordon Schilderfeld.
Giovani Trapattoni named the same starting XI as Monday’s final warm-up game in Hungary for Ireland’s first European Championship game since 1988 and major tournament fixture in a decade . The draw between group favourites Italy and Spain left both teams with a chance to take some initiative going into games against the winners of the last two World Cups. Having remained unbeaten in 14 games there was a visible optimism in the Irish camp which was quickly shattered within the first two minutes.
Darijo Srna dinked a ball over from the right, which nicked off Stephen Ward, and fell into the path of an off balance Mandzukic who improvised a header to guide the ball into the bottom corner of Given’s net as the Aston Villa keeper struggled to adjust his footing on the slick Muncipal Stadium surface. Ireland responded with vigour with Damien Duff dragging a shot wide prior to St Ledger’s equaliser in the 19th minute. The defender did well to get in front of marker Vedran Corluka and stoop to nod home Aiden McGeady’s free kick from the left to send the Irish support into their very own version of the Poznan.
Ivan Perisic offered an immediate riposte but couldn’t beat Given from range whilst Jelavic glanced a header wide of goal prior to restoring Croatia’s advantage just before the interval. Luka Modric’s strike was poked into the Everton striker’s path by Ward and he made no mistake lifting the ball into the net despite appearing to be at least a yard offside.
It went from bad to worse for Ireland and just three minutes after the break they went further behind. Perisic swung in a excellent left wing cross that found the head of Mandzukic with the ball striking the foot of the post and deflecting in off Given to render the game as good as over. Trapattoni threw on Jon Walters and Simon Cox in the aftermath and the changes had an immediate effect as Keane was bundled to the ground by Schilderfeld but referee Bjorn Kuipers told the striker to get back to his feet.
Richard Dunne than failed to fully test Stipe Pletikosa with a tame header before Ivan Rakitic fired just wide from 20-yards as the Irish challenge fizzed out in the dying embers although Keith Andrews should have at least hit the target instead of heading Damien Duff’s corner well wide. It was a harsh reintroduction to tournament football for Trapattoni and his squad who have the daunting task of facing defending champions Spain on Thursday.