Ireland contemplate Euro 2012 exit after Croatia defeat
Meanwhile, Ireland's next opponents, Spain and Italy, drew 1-1
IRELAND'S hopes of making any impact at the 2012 European Championships are all but over after they suffered a 3-1 mauling at the hands of Croatia.
The sobering defeat for the Irish in the Polish city of Poznan leaves them contemplating a Group C whitewash with matches against Spain and Italy still to come.
That pair drew 1-1 in the group's other match on Sunday, a result that leaves the impressive Croatians with a real chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals.
An estimated 30,000 Irish fans had made the trip east to watch their boys play in their first major championships since the 2002 World Cup, but their evening turned sour after just two minutes.
That's how long it took Mario Mandzukic (pictured left with John O'Shea) to rise unmarked and direct a header through the Irish defence past the flailing hand of the stumbling Shay Given in goal. Ireland pulled one back on 19 minutes when Sean St Ledger got on the end of Aiden McGeady's free-kick and glanced his header just inside the Croatian post.
But thereafter it was all Croatia as their strike team of Nikica Jelavic and Mandzukic proved a handful for the Irish defence. Everton striker Jelavic got his team's second just before the break and Mandzukic sealed the win with another header on 48 minutes.
Ireland were full of running but low on world-class quality and it will require nothing short of a miracle for them to beat Spain on Thursday. However, manager Giovanni Trapattoni was in bullish mood following the defeat, saying: "It is obviously going to be tough, but that's football. It doesn't come more difficult than Spain and we will need our supporters to be shouting for us again."
Asked if he seriously believed his side could beat the best team in the world, Trapattoni replied: "There is no better game to come next than Spain. Obviously we will relish the challenge of the world champions, so why not go and get a result?"
Spain were held to a 1-1 draw by Italy in Gdansk, a result that ended a run of 14 consecutive victories in competitive matches for the world champions stretching back to their defeat by Switzerland in the opening match of the 2010 World Cup.
Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque fielded a starting XI without any recognised striker, opting to play Cesc Fabregas as his target man in what he termed a "false no. 9" role.
As a result, Italy dominated the first half. Nevertheless, it took them until the hour mark to find the net with substitute Antonio Di Natale scoring with his first touch of the game.
Fabregas equalised for Spain four minutes later with a deft finish and Chelsea striker Fernando Torres, on for the final quarter, should have put them ahead, but chipped over the bar with the goal at his mercy.
Afterwards, Spain blamed the pitch, not their formation, for their failure to beat the Italians, with Fabregas telling reporters: "It is lamentable that we have to play on a pitch like this. I don't want to complain, but we deserve much more."