Poznan: Croatia came back from behind to secure a vital 1-1 draw with Italy at Euro 2012 on Thursday to make for an exciting last round of matches in Group C.
Andrea Pirlo gave the Azzurri a deserved lead towards the end of the first half with a sumputous free kick from the edge of the box, but goalscoring revelation Mario Mandzukic earned his side a point late on to make sure the pool would be taken to the last game.
Both sides took to the field of play with the same lineups from their first matches of the tournament, despite question marks hanging over the likes of Mario Balotelli, who came into the encounter with a yellow card incurred in the 1-1 draw with Spain, but kept his place ahead of Antonio Di Natale.
Andrea Pirlo gave Italy the lead in the 39th minute but Mario Mandzukic was left unmarked to equalize in the 72nd.
Meanwhile, Croatia's convincing 3-1 success over the Republic of Ireland meant their preparations for the match was a far less complicated proposition. Their attractive style of play combined with physical presence in the box saw many suddenly tip the Vatreni as dark horses for the competition.
From the word go, it was a frenetic affair. Italy, seemingly on a high from their impressive display against the reigning European champions, showed their intent early on by once more looking to attack their opponents on the break; Maggio, Pirlo and Cassano all proving important outlets once more.
Balotelli struck first inside the first three minutes, seeing a shot on the edge of the box whistle just wide of the target, but the Croats were keen to prove their worth in the encounter. Mario Mandzukic, last week's hero with a pair of goals to his name, was actively involved in an ongoing duel with Giorgio Chiellini.
Nonetheless, the Manchester City striker did not stop running throughout the half, always looking to find space for his team-mates to pick out a pass - Pirlo's delightful 50-yard through ball a highlight. However, his encouraging link-up play with Cassano almost gave way to a goal, if not for Stipe Pletikosa's stop.
Much akin to the first game, Croatia used their front pairing of Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic as reference points. The Everton striker, in a rich vein of form, posed the Azzurri backline a problem or two, as he forced Gianluigi Buffon into keeping on his toes with headed efforts.
Italy began to mix their play up, with Balotelli's hard work and Cassano's slick touches in advanced areas proving troublesome for the Croatian defence to keep up with. The AC Milan striker pounced on a raking ball and jinxed his way into the box but saw his strike drag wide of Pletikosa.
Wave after wave of Nazionale attacks were beginning to string together, despite the occassional Croatian burst down the left flank, with Luka Modric marshaled out of proceedings by Thiago Motta. The Azzurri were fast becoming on top, but the former Tottenham custodian continued to stand still.
Claudio Marchisio, who came close with a thunderous strike earlier in the half, should have ought to open the scoring on 37 minutes. Juventus team-mate Andrea Pirlo, who begun to pull the strings in midfield, released his colleague, but he could not beat Pletikosa from close range on successive occasions.
However, two minutes later Italy took a deserved lead. A free kick on the edge of the box was curled in magnificently by playmaker Pirlo, to score his 10th goal in Nazionale colours. It proved a fitting end to a fluid half of football in Poznan.
Coach Slaven Bilic would have been understandably frustrated with his side's lethargic showing, and his team talk worked wonders it seemed. Jelavic, the thorn of Chiellini throughout the opening stages of the match, grew in stature as the game wore thin.
Around the hour mark saw a potentially decisive duel between Darijo Srna and Thiago Motta brew, ending in the Italy midfielder take a blow to the back from the Shakhtar Donetsk full-back. Prandelli apty hauled off his man following a yellow card and Croatia took control of the contest.
Modric began to break through the shackles once imposed on him as much of the play sufficed in the Italians' half, with their opponents defended deeper and deeper. The impacts of their most influential stars had died down considerably, meaning there could be only one outcome.
Mandzukic profited from Chiellini's lackadasical misjudgment in the box from a cross to collect the ball at the far post and lift over Buffon for a crucial equaliser with around 20 minutes left on the clock. It appeared the Croats had found the initiative to go on and emerge victorious.
However, a subdued last 10 minutes was played out, with Italy again struggling to recapture their earlier fluency, despite the introductions of Di Natale and Sebastian Giovinco. For Croatia, they leave with a crucial point and go into their encounter with Spain, who now face Ireland, on a high.