Croatia rued a missed penalty from Mario Mandzukic after being held to a 1-1 draw with second-placed Italy in Euro 2016 qualifying Group H on Friday.
Playing in front of an empty stadium in Split as punishment for alleged racist chanting against Norway in March, Niko Kovac’s side maintained their two-point advantage at the top of the pool, but that cushion would have been bigger had Gianluigi Buffon – who was taken off at half-time – not saved Mandzukic’s early spot-kick.
The Atletico Madrid forward was not to be denied soon after as he opened the scoring following a swift break from the hosts, but they were unable to find a winner.
Instead, Italy were given a way back into the game 10 minutes before the break as Mandzukic handled, Lazio’s Antonio Candreva making no mistake from the spot.
Both sides pushed for a winner in the second half, but found chances much harder to come by, neither goalkeeper truly stretched.
The point leaves Croatia – who saw captain Darijo Srna sent off late on – in the driving seat in the group with four games remaining, while Italy are looking over their shoulders to Norway in third.
Despite a lack of atmosphere inside the empty Stadion Poljud, the game got off to an exhilarating start, with the hosts handed the chance to open the scoring from the spot after six minutes as Davide Astori felled Srna.
The defender’s blushes were spared, though, as Buffon – making a record 50th appearance in a European Championship game – made a comfortable save from Mandzukic’s poor effort from 12 yards.
The action-packed start showed no signs of abating as Stephan El Shaarawy thought he had given Italy the lead four minutes later, only for his tap-in from Graziano Pelle’s flick to be ruled out for offside.
While Italy protested the decision Croatia raced down the other end and Mandzukic made up for his earlier miss with a close-range finish from Ivan Rakitic’s low delivery.
El Shaarawy – making his first start for Italy since June 2013 –had another two chances to bring his side level before the half hour as the visitors came into the game, but it was Candreva who grabbed the equaliser.
A Mandzukic handball inside his own area after 35 minutes gifted the Lazio forward the opportunity to level from the spot, which he duly accepted with a sublime chip to restore parity.
Croatia failed to test Salvatore Sirigu after the break following his introduction for Buffon, the game trapped in the middle of the pitch as both defences tightened things up.
The clearest opening fell to Marco Parolo with 20 minutes to play after a superb run from El Shaarawy, but the Lazio man wasted the chance with a weak effort that Danijel Subasic easily gathered.
Croatia were reduced to 10 men in the closing minutes as Srna was shown a second yellow card, leaving both sides settling for a point to maintain their unbeaten record.
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