Ten years since their last appearance at a major tournament, and twenty-four since Ireland’s only appearance at the European Championships, the rarefied atmosphere that accompanies football at this level appeared to take Irish breath away, with Croatia scoring through Mario Mandzukic inside the opening three minutes. Perhaps the carnival atmosphere inside the Stadion Miejski, which was a sea of green save for a defiant corner of 8,000 Croatians, took Irish eyes off the ball because Mandzukic’s goal was certainly preventable. After midfielder Keith Andews had conceded a second minute corner, Ireland simply failed to clear the ball and Croatia were allowed to camp inside the 18-yard box. The ball darted between green shirts until full-back Darijo Srna broke down the right channel and pulled back for Mandzukic, who managed to head goalwards despite stumbling into the ball. The Wolfsburg forward’s header looped towards goal and goalkeeper Shay Given, possibly displaying ring-rust after an injury-affected week of training, allowed the effort to bounce into the net with his ponderous dive failing to stop the ball. It was the worst possible start for Ireland. Trapattoni’s game-plan, aimed at stifling the Croatians and hitting them on the break, was now redundant and his team faced chasing the game against opponents capable of cutting them to shreds with the ball. The badhrain continued to beat, however, and the massed ranks of Irish supporters encouraged their team forward. Damien Duff sent a 20-yard strike wide of goal and Andrews saw a free-kick blocked by the Croatian wall before a clumsy foul by Vedran Corluka on Kevin Doyle gifted Ireland the set-piece from which they equalised in the nineteenth minute. If his foul on Doyle wasn’t enough, Tottenham defender Corluka then gave Ireland another helping hand by losing St Ledger at the far post, enabling the centre-half to score with a diving header. There was a delayed reaction to St Ledger’s goal, with an audible whistle sound catching the crowd off guard, but once reality dawned, it appeared as though the whole of Poznan and the surrounding region of Wielkopolska had cheered the goal. Croatia remained a threat, though, and if Given was at fault for the opener, he made up for it with a full-stretch save to keep out Ivan Perisic’s dipping 25-yard volley on 22 minutes. The Aston Villa goalkeeper was helpless to prevent Jelavic from restoring Croatia’s lead two minutes before half-time, however. Luka Modric’s shot struck Glenn Whelan on the edge of the penalty area, before Stephen Ward’s sliced clearance fell to Jelavic 12 yards from goal. The Everton forward had been stood in an offside position when Modric shot, but Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers judged him not to be interfering with play. Irish protests were forceful, but the goal stood to leave Ireland with a second-half mountain to climb. Ireland’s sense of injustice continued to burn throughout the half-time break, with Trapattoni and Keane berating referee Kuipers in the tunnel about the decision to allow Jelavic’s goal to stand. It was a pointless exercise. Kuipers had made the correct decision, however painful it may have been to Ireland, but by harping on about the goal, the Irish allowed themselves to lose focus. Nothing affects concentration like red mist and Croatia made Ireland pay within four minutes of the re-start by extending their lead and putting the game beyond the Irish. Once again, Ireland allowed Croatia to score from a cross, but Mandzukic’s header from Perisic’s cross hit post, only to bounce into the net off Given’s back. It was a bitter blow for the goalkeeper and Ireland, one exacerbated by Keane’s unsuccessful appeal for a penalty, but Croatia deserved their victory. Ireland’s task now is daunting. To avoid elimination, they must sink Spain on Thursday in the shadow of the shipyards in Gdansk and that is some task.