Poznan, June 15 (IANS/RIA Novosti) A Mario Mandzukic equaliser 18 minutes from time gave Croatia a 1-1 draw against Italy in their Euro 2012 group stage game here Thursday.
With four points from two games, Croatia have a strong chance of reaching the quarterfinals, while Italy must beat Ireland Monday to avoid an embarrassing early exit.
Italy missed several chances in the early stages before Andrea Pirlo put his team ahead six minutes before the break with a curling free-kick.
Mandzukic equalised in the 72nd minute with his third goal of the tournament, lashing the ball into the goal from Ivan Strinic's cross.
Mandzukic was stretchered off with an ankle injury in stoppage time, and may be an injury doubt for Croatia's final game against Spain.
Italy had a string of early chances, starting with Mario Balotelli missing the target from a good position in the box on three minutes.
Claudio Marchisio's long shot flew just over the bar four minutes later, before Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa was called into service to stop another Balotelli effort on 16 minutes.
Croatia's first chance came soon after, but Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon cut out Darijo Srna's promising cross before it reached Mandzukic.
Antonio Cassano's shot went wide in the 23rd minute after a pinpoint pass from Marchisio, before a powerful long-range shot from Balotelli also failed to find the mark.
Pletikosa made a spectacular double save on 37 minutes to deny Marchisio a goal from two close-range strikes.
His efforts were in vain, however, as Pirlo put the Italians ahead two minutes later with an unstoppable strike for the first goal from a direct free-kick at Euro 2012.
Cassano missed a chance to extend Italy's lead just before half-time, but headed over the bar from a corner.
Croatia forced their way back into the game early in the second half, but were unable to score.
Mandzukic ended a promising Croatian counter-attack with a tame shot at Buffon before Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Luka Modric sent in two mighty shots from distance, but both were off target.
Modric's efforts were mirrored at the other end by Balotelli, who smashed the ball over the bar from long range.
Croatia pushed forward and were rewarded with an equaliser, Strinic's left-wing cross eluding Giorgio Chiellini and finding Mandzukic, who bundled the ball home.
The match was briefly halted after the goal because of Croatian fans throwing pyrotechnics, although out of joy rather than frustration, as was the case during a similar stoppage earlier in the match.
Croatia could have won the game in stoppage time, but Buffon smothered a shot from former Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva on the counterattack.
Spain play Ireland in the second game Thursday.