June 11 (Bloomberg) -- Spain was held to a 1-1 tie by Italy last night as it started its bid to become the first team to retain the European Championship soccer title. Croatia tops Group C after a 3-1 win against Ireland.
Substitute Antonio Di Natale gave Italy the lead on 61 minutes in Gdansk, Poland, with Cesc Fabregas tying the match only three minutes later.
“Of course we wanted to win here but I am not leaving feeling frustrated as I thought we put in a good performance,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque told reporters. “We know how this type of game is, though, and this one was quite balanced.”
Two-time champion Spain also holds the World Cup and can achieve an unprecedented three straight major world and continental titles if it wins the final. Italy is aiming to win the competition for a first time since 1968.
Mario Mandzukic got two goals, while Nikica Jelavic also scored for two-time quarterfinalist Croatia in Poznan, Poland, to end Ireland’s 14-match unbeaten run.
Spain, ranked No. 1 by world governing body FIFA, began its match without a recognized striker, Fabregas playing as a forward, while No. 12 Italy started with six Juventus players including Emanuele Giaccherini for his debut.
“We were a little surprised with Spain’s lineup but we agreed that we needed to focus on our own game,” Italy coach Cesare Prandelli told reporters.
The Spanish had the game’s early chances, David Silva firing over the bar and then hitting a low 15-yard shot that was easily gathered by goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
On 13 minutes, Andrea Pirlo forced Spain’s Iker Casillas to tip wide a 20-yard free kick and Antonio Cassano hit an effort just off target soon after.
Andres Iniesta had a couple of opportunities before halftime as Spain dominated possession, but Italy had the clearest chances. Claudio Marchisio hit a first-time shot from outside the penalty area straight at Casillas on 36 minutes, while at the end of the half the goalkeeper blocked a close-range header from Thiago Motta.
Spain also started the second half better as Fabregas tested Buffon and Iniesta fired across goal.
Italy’s Mario Balotelli should, though, have scored on 54 minutes as he robbed Sergio Ramos and advanced into the penalty area. He delayed his shot too long, allowing Ramos to recover.
Balotelli was replaced two minutes later by Di Natale, who then put his team ahead. The substitute collected a pass from Pirlo and curled the ball past Casillas. The lead was short-lived, Fabregas shooting low into the net.
Fernando Torres came on for Fabregas and wasted several opportunities to give Spain the win. First he was tackled by Buffon after hesitating when through on goal, and later he chipped over the bar with the goalkeeper stranded.
In between Torres’s chances, Di Natale was unable to get a close-range volley on target.
“What disappointed me about this evening was that we allowed them to equalize so quickly,” Prandelli said. “We were playing against the world champions but we should have made it more difficult for them after we scored.”
Both Italy and Spain have one point, with Croatia on three. Croatia led Ireland after three minutes when Mandzukic headed past Shay Given, but Ireland responded with a goal from Sean St. Ledger on 19 minutes.
Croatia led at halftime as Jelavic scored late in the half, then Mandzukic got his second four minutes after the interval from a header that hit a post and bounced off the head of Given into the net.
“We conceded sloppy goals, we’re normally quite tight,” St. Ledger told ITV1. “When you’re 3-1 down against a team like Croatia it’ll always be tough.”
Ireland’s Giovanni Trapattoni yesterday became the oldest coach at a European Championship at age 73 years, 85 days.
The teams play their second games on June 14. Italy faces Croatia, while Spain plays Ireland.
In today’s games, the first in Group D, France plays England in Donetsk and Ukraine faces Sweden in Kiev.
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