Euro 2012: Croatia silence Keane, Ireland with 3-1 victory
There was no luck to be found for Robbie Keane & Co. as Croatia topped Ireland 3-1 in the teams' Euro 2012 opener on Sunday. A Nikica Jelavic strike sandwiched between two goals from Mario Mandzukic were enough to overcome Sean St. Ledger's headed effort for Ireland and send Croatia top of Group C thanks to the 1-1 draw between Spain and Italy in Sunday's early game.
The three goals proved insurmountable for the Irish, who have only once scored more than one goal in a game in a major tournament, which was incidentally their last major tournament victory – a 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia in the 2002 World Cup in which Keane scored.
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It took only a few minutes for Croatia to get on the scoreboard as some sloppy Irish defending from a corner allowed Mandzukic to slip a header past Shay Given into the bottom corner.
Ireland settled down after the goal and were rewarded in the 19th minute as St. Ledger got around his marker to redirect a free kick into the far corner.
With Croatia controlling the midfield, Keane didn't see much of the ball, but had some smart touches when he did get on the ball and provided a good deal of hustle on defense. A neat piece of individual skill nearly saw him clean through on goal 10 minutes from the half when he stripped a Croatian defender, but the ball was poked away fom him at the last moment.
Croatia dealt Ireland a cruel blow on the stroke of halftime as Jelavic was gifted the ball in front of goal from Stephen Ward's sliced clearance, with the Everton goal-getter making no mistake in poking the ball past Given.
The Eastern European outfit struck once more minutes after the restart as Mandzukic's glancing header struck the post and rebounded in off Given's head.
Ireland naturally pushed forward, needing a pair of goals in the final 40 minutes, and perhaps should've had a chance at a second just after the hour mark. Gordon Schildenfeld came through the back of Keane's legs in the penalty area, only for referee Bjorn Kuipers to turn away the distraught LA Galaxy man's pleas for a spot kick.
West Brom midfielder Keith Andrews had the two best chances for the Irish in the final stage of the game, his snap header forcing Croatia No. 1 Stipe Pletikosa into a diving save and his free header from a corner bouncing inches wide in stoppage time.
The road gets no easier for Keane and Ireland, defending world and European champions Spain await on Thursday at 2:45 pm ET. Earlier that day, Croatia will look to hold on to the top spot when they come up against Italy.