View Photo Gallery: Mario Mandzukic and Croatia are the surprise leaders in Group C.

Croatia remained at the top of Group C after drawing Italy, 1-1, on Thursday afternoon.

Despite falling behind 1-0 on a fantastic free kick goal by Andrea Pirlo, Croatia (four points) came out in the second half and began to chip away at the mystical fortress that is the Italian defense. In the 72nd minute, Croatia broke through with the equalizer.

Ivan Strinic was given time and space to set up a cross on the left side, and he delivered a fantastic cross to the far post. There, Mario Mandzukic lost Italian star defender Giorgio Chiellini, took a touch down on the top of the six-yard box and poked the ball into the upper netting to pull Croatia even at 1-1.

The rare defensive lapse for Italy gave Mandzukic his third goal of the tournament. He joins Germany’s Mario Gomez and Russia’s Alan Dzagoev as the tournament’s top goal scorers thus far.

In the first half, Italy (two points) put consistent pressure on Croatia. Mario Balotelli was fantastic early, and the Italians seemed destined to break through.

Andrea Pirlo’s free kick gave the Italians the lead but it didn’t hold up. (Tony Gentile/REUTERS)

Pirlo, the 33-year-old central midfielder, proved just how vital he is when he curled a free kick from the top left side of the box into the lower near corner of the net.

A second consecutive 1-1 draw likely leaves Italy in need of a victory in its group stage finale against Ireland. With Italy heavily favored in that game, Croatia will be in need of a result against world champion Spain. The Spanish face Ireland this afternoon in a match the Irish must at least tie to remain alive in the competition.


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