Croatia 1-1 Italy: Super-sub Mattia Zaccagni scores late equaliser to book Azzurri’s place in the last-16 at Euro 2024… after Luka Modric scored just 32 seconds after his penalty miss

Mattia Zaccagni scored a stunning equalizer to book Italy's place in the last 16 at Euro 2024
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One last attack. Eight minutes into eight minutes of stoppage time, Italy were trailing when Riccardo Calafiori stepped outside the defense, collected the ball and drove into the heart of the Croatian defense.

By the time he approached the penalty area, all the people in plaid shirts were drawn towards him and Calafiori slipped a pass to the left, where Mattia Zaccagni was all alone.

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There were 10 Croatian players in the camera shot, but none near the Lazio winger who had only come on in the 81st minute when Luciano Spalletti started throwing whatever attackers he could find on the bench.

Zaccagni seized the opportunity, first time with his right foot, he went on target and teased a shot past Dominik Livakovic’s dive with plenty of curl. Everyone in the Red Bull Arena in Leipzig held their breath and watched.

Even the incessant beating sound of the Croatian fans seemed to grow silent as it floated through the air. It then hit the net, leveling the score at 1-1 and the Italian contingent erupted. They have a new hero as they head to Berlin to take on Switzerland in the last 16. One point was enough to take second place behind Spain in Group B.

Mattia Zaccagni scored a stunning equalizer to book Italy's place in the last 16 at Euro 2024

Mattia Zaccagni scored a stunning equalizer to book Italy’s place in the last 16 at Euro 2024

The Lazio winger kept his composure in the closing moments and placed the ball into the top corner

The Lazio winger kept his composure in the closing moments and placed the ball into the top corner

The Lazio winger kept his composure in the closing moments and placed the ball into the top corner

Wild scenes ensued at the Leipzig Stadium as Italy booked their place in the knockout round

Wild scenes ensued at the Leipzig Stadium as Italy booked their place in the knockout round

Wild scenes ensued at the Leipzig Stadium as Italy booked their place in the knockout round

Luka Modric had converted from close range to put Croatia in the driver's seat that evening

Luka Modric had converted from close range to put Croatia in the driver's seat that evening

Luka Modric had converted from close range to put Croatia in the driver’s seat that evening

“We deserved to continue in terms of what we produced there,” boss Spalletti said in an impassioned post-match chat with Italian reporters. ‘Of course we were a bit weak at times and didn’t play our best football, but it was absolutely deserved and justified to continue.

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“And it’s hard to get through this group, because you told me it was the ‘Group of Death.’ I didn’t say it was. There are top teams, Spain is brilliant and Croatia is excellent. We achieved a result that was very challenging and it is incredible what they have achieved.

“Those who came off the bench are giants. They kept the game in balance, they did it perfectly. They kept that shape despite the fact that we were ultra attacking with six attacking players on the field.’

Croatian hearts were broken. The final whistle sounded almost immediately after Zaccagni’s goal. “Cruel, football can be merciless,” said Luka Modric, who had given his side the lead in an incredible three-minute spell early in the second half.

The reason was a penalty for a handball against Davide Frattesi, who had only been on the field for a few minutes.

Frattesi turned his back as Andrej Kramaric shaped a shot towards goal and landed on his arm. Referee Danny Makkelie did not notice, but an intervention by the VAR and a visit to the field monitor changed that.

Modric put the ball on the spot and faced Gianluigi Donnarumma, the hero of the tournament when Italy won the 2021 tournament on penalties.

Donnarumma saved again, low to his left, but that was not the end. Croatia kept the pressure on and delivered a cross from the right. Donnarumma made what was perhaps an even better save to deny Ante Budimir from close range.

Just 32 seconds before Modric's goal, the Croat saw his penalty saved

Just 32 seconds before Modric's goal, the Croat saw his penalty saved

Just 32 seconds before Modric’s goal, the Croat saw his penalty saved

But Modric got to the rebound in no time and turned to fire high into the net from six yards out, in front of the loudest section of Croatian supporters. Bedlam followed.

AGREEMENT FACTS AND ASSESSMENTS

Croatia (4-3-3): Livakovic 7.5; Stanisic 7, Sutalo 6, Pongracic 6.5, Gvardiol 6.5; Modric 8, Brozovic 7.5, Kovacic 7; Sucic 7, Kramaric 6.5, Mario Pasalic 5 (Budimir 46, 7).

Goals: Modrian

Bookings: Susic, Modric, Brozovic, Stanisic, Pongracic

Manager: Zlatko Dalic 7

Italy (3-5-2): Donnarumma 8; Darmian 6 (Zaccagni 81), Bastoni 6, Calafiori 6.5; Di Lorenzo 6, Barella 7, Jorginho 6 (Fagioli 81′), Pellegrini 6.5 (Frattesi 46, 5), Dimarco 5 (Chiesa 57, 6); Raspadori 6 (Scamacca 75′), Retegui 6.

Goals: Zaccagni 90+10

Bookings: Calafiori

Manager: Lucaino Spalletti6

Reference: Danny Makkelie (NED) 6

With pounding drums, exploding firecrackers, flares and smoke canisters it sometimes felt like we were playing this tournament 900 kilometers south of Zagreb, but Italy, having adjusted their shape to play with a back three, made the most of a scrappy first half.

The best opening came from Alessandro Bastoni, unmarked when found by Nicolo Barella.

The Inter Milan centre-back looked certain to score when he jumped up and timed his header, firmly but straight above Dominik Livakovic, who reacted brilliantly to push the ball over. Barella buried his face in the grass in disbelief. Bastoni applauded the goalkeeper.

Livakovic made another smart save, low to the left of Lorenzo Pellegrini on the turn before half-time. Croatia were bolder in the second half, introducing Budimir and releasing Josko Gvardiol on muscular forays from left back.

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The pressure was on, with the VAR penalty, the Modric goal and all the drama that followed. Suddenly it was a different game.

Italy took on new urgency as it began launching a response as Croatia defended itself. “Eight minutes of extra time is nonsense,” said Dalic, who took Modric off ten minutes before the end and received a standing ovation amid loud cheers of “Luka, Luka”.

We may not see the little maestro again at a major tournament, but if this was his last appearance, he will leave with a record: the oldest goalscorer at a European Championship, 38 years old and 289 days old.

After being substituted into the match, Modric had to watch as Croatia let their lead slip

After being substituted into the match, Modric had to watch as Croatia let their lead slip

After being substituted into the match, Modric had to watch as Croatia let their lead slip

Bastoni headed over from a corner. Crosses flashed in from both flanks and eluded the blueshirts. Shots were blocked by defenders throwing themselves into the line of fire, but Croatia looked as likely to score a second on the break as to concede.

Then came Calafiori’s run and pass and Zaccagni’s goal.

“It was very stressful,” Modric said. ‘Football makes you smile, but it can also make you sad. When you lose like this, it’s hard to find the words to describe how you feel.

‘Maybe it’s unfair. We fought for Croatia from the first whistle to the last whistle and the result is what it is. We can be proud of the way we have represented our country.”

Although Croatia is not yet officially out of the competition, it is expected that it will not be among the teams that qualify as one of the tournament’s top third places.

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