Slaven Bilic promised a win for Croatia against a (weak) Irish side on Sunday. His promise came through in a 3-1 victory.
There was something different about this Croatia squad on a rainy night in Poznan and it showed immediately after their national anthem, Lijepa Naša. Players didn't just unzip their warm-up jackets and trot to their positions as they did throughout an unimpressive qualifying campaign; they emphatically showed some positive emotion and energy just before the kick-off.
Wolfsburg striker Mario Mandzukic got the Vatreni on the board three minutes into the match with a header from 13 yards out after slipping in the box on a wet pitch. Captain Darijo Srna chipped the ball from the endline and the following header caught Irish ‘keeper Shay Given leaning the wrong way to give Croatia an early 1-0 lead, imitating their start against Turkey in Euro 2012 play-off round. However, the Irish would not be denied as Sean St Ledger equalized in the 19th minute, heading home a free-kick from the left side. Vedran Corluka could not stay with his man and Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa did not come out in time to deny the threat.
Ireland briefly took back the momentum but Nikica Jelavic found himself alone in front of the net in the 43rd minute after the ball was played to him by an Irish defender. The gift pass directly to him was struck into the net, giving Croatia a 2-1 lead heading into half-time. The second half started just as the first one did for Croatia, with Mandzukic heading home, but this time the ball hit the inside of the post and came off the head of Given. It was 3-1 Croatia and they would never look back.
The most impressive part of Croatia's game today was their outside shooting. Dortmund's Ivan Perisic blasted two rockets towards net in the match, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic adding one each of their own. If this continues and Mandzukic keeps receiving service in the air, there's no telling how far this Croatia squad can go in 2012. The Ireland win was the right way to start the tournament, but upcoming games with Italy and Spain will be the true tests.
A win over Italy on Thursday would see Croatia clinch a quarter-final berth.