POZNAN, Poland (AFP) –
Italy showed great character after a traumatic run-in to Euro 2012 by holding defending champions Spain to a 1-1 draw in their opening Group C clash on Sunday.
Croatia, though, top the group after the 2008 quarter-finalists beat the Republic of Ireland 3-1 in the later match on a night that Ireland’s record caps holder Shay Given will wish to forget.
The 36-year-old had been a doubt coming into the game because of knee and calf worries and the slowness with which he reacted to Mario Mandzukic‘s third minute opener with a header suggested all is not well with him.
He could well end up being accredited with an own goal too as Mandzukic’s header came back off the post and went over the line off the diving Given’s head.
It was a disappointing night for the oldest coach ever at the tournament, Giovanni Trapattoni, and the 73-year-old will be dearly hoping that his boys in green replicate the spirit shown by one of his former teams Italy.
Beset by another matchfixing scandal back home and by poor form coming into the championship proper – including a 3-0 hammering by Russia – they at times outplayed a Spanish side that had bizarrely started the game without a recognised striker up front.
An inspired substitution by Cesare Prandelli saw Antonio di Natale score just five minutes after coming on in place of an ineffective Mario Balotelli only for Cesc Fabregas to level three minutes later.
However, for the thoughtful and refreshingly open Prandelli it was a welcome performance given the clouds hanging over the team – but he still saw room for improvement.
“It was with difficulty that we got in front against the world champions, but we were there, we wanted to play,” he said.
“We’ve given Spain the opportunity to equalise so we have to improve and that’s the mentality we need.”
His Spanish counterpart Vicente Del Bosque praised the Italians for their performance but refused to accept he had got it wrong by leaving strikers such as Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Torres on the bench, although the latter was eventually to come on.
“He (Fabregas) is a very special player who can get forward and allows us to dominate the middle of the pitch,” said Del Bosque.
“We wanted the security of having the ball against a rival who put us under pressure and stretched us.
“In the second half we took control, we wanted to win of course but our determination wasn’t enough.”
Croatian coach Slaven Bilic, 40 years younger than Trapattoni, said that whilst their match had been tighter than the scoreline suggested his side had been the better on the night.
“Maybe they were the better team in some moments, but if you look at the overall impression, we were the better team,” said Bilic, who steps down after the finals to take over at Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow.
“But we respect them, and I’m sure Spain and Italy will have some difficulty against them.
“My players have showed they can cope with the pressure and tension.”
For Trapattoni, who coached Italy at Euro 2004 where they didn’t lose a game but still went out in the group stage, said that he hadn’t given up hope of making the last eight.
“We have to believe. Every game in this Euro could be a surprise. We have to believe this,” said the Italian.