POZNAN: Andrea Pirlo has been one of Italy’s most distinguished footballers of the modern era: Class, style and a wondrous ability not only to find space himself but to create even more for his team-mates; every game he plays presents his audience with the privilege of watching a master at work writes KEIR RADNEDGE.

Pity his defensive team-mates were not quite at his level. Pirlo curled in the free kick which provided the Azzurri with a 39th-minute lead over Croatia here in Poznan but slack covering allowed Mario Mandzukic the opportunity to  thump a 74th-minute equaliser and seize a deserved drop.

Pirlo was voted man of the match, a choice for once with which no-one, surely could disagree. In the first half in particular his vision had offered Italy the tantalising prospect of seeing the best of Mario Balotelli. Unfortunately the Manchester City man appeared quicker in thought than execution.

He had created and wasted a superb opportunity against Spain and here again he looked as if he were moving in slow-motion.

First he turned and fired wide in the third minute then he took too long thinking about how to despatch a superb angled cross from Pirlo. Finally he wasted the best opening of all by thumping a shot straight at keeper Stipe Pletikosa who was only happy to beat it out.

The one moment’s action appeared to spark ‘money chants’ from the Croat fans massed behind Pletikosa’s goal but he took no notice and continued to take up move dangerously in and out of the east European’s back line.

At the other end Croatia should have had a penalty in the 20th minute when Giorgio Chiellini threw out an arm to pull back Nikica Jelavic as the Everton turned him inside the penalty box. Both men went down and referee Howard Webb awarded a free kick against the Croat.

That was just a brief respite for Croatia. Otherwise Italy grew in confidence and creative threat. Pletikosa made a sharp double save from Claudio Marchisio but he was at fault when Pirlo squeezed a free kick between keeper and right-hand post.

Croatia, predictably, stepped up the tempo after half-time. Luka Modric moved further forward and was twice narrowly off target with long-range efforts. Italy appeared satisfied to cover up and paid the price for fading ambition when Ivan Strinic hurled over a long teasing cross from the left and Mandzukic thumped the ball home via Gigi Buffon’s left-hand post.

Croatia maintained their momentum by making the more effective substitutions. They gained in pace and Italy failed to match them. A draw suited Croatia better and there were worth it, too.

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