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Euro 2024: Mattia Zaccagni’s last-gasp equalizer sends Italy through to knockout stages and breaks Croatia hearts

By Matias Grez, CNN

(CNN) — Mattia Zaccagni’s last-minute stunner earned Italy a 1-1 draw and sent the defending champion through to the last-16 of Euro 2024, breaking Croatia’s hearts in the process.

Luka Modrić’s goal 10 minutes into the second half after he had just missed a penalty looked like it would be enough to earn the Vatreni a place in the knockout stages.

But Zaccagni had other ideas, latching onto Riccardo Calafiori’s pass in the 98th minute and bending his shot past the outstretched hand of Dominik Livaković and into the top corner.

It proved to be the penultimate kick of the match as the referee blew for full-time immediately after the restart, the distraught Croatia players, only seconds earlier on the brink of glory, sinking to the turf.

Modrić cut a forlorn figure on the bench and buried his face in his hands.

Spain, meanwhile, beat Albania 1-0 off a tidy first-half Ferrán Torres goal from Dani Olmo’s through ball to finish top of Group B with nine points from nine.

Late drama

Croatia has proven to be a real bogey team for Italy over the years. The Azzurri hadn’t tasted victory over Monday’s opponent in their previous eight meetings, a run stretching back to November 1994.

Italy’s only previous win in this fixture came when the two sides first met back in 1942.

A chastening 3-0 defeat to Spain in Croatia’s opening game of Euro 2024 threw up questions about whether this was a tournament too far for an aging team, questions that certainly were not answered in a 2-2 draw with Albania.

But Italy has been similarly underwhelming so far in Germany, scraping a 2-1 win over Albania before being utterly outplayed by La Roja in a game the Italians were likely delighted to see end only 1-0.

It was a relatively subdued opening 25 minutes; perhaps nerves and the precariousness of the situation were so far getting the better of the two teams.

Luka Sučić saw an early long-range strike tipped over the bar by Gianluigi Donnarumma – one of the players of the tournament – before Italy defender Mateo Retegui had a header blocked behind for a corner kick.

But Italy should have been ahead just minutes later when Nicolò Barella’s delightful cross found Alessandro Bastoni completely unmarked at the far post, only for a stunning save from Livaković to deny what looked a certain goal.

The Azzurri had shown by far the most intent of the two sides and, though Croatia grew into the half as it wore on, Italy continued to look dangerous as Lorenzo Pellegrini brought another smart save out of Livaković with a low strike from the edge of the area.

It was a strangely subdued first half from a Croatia side that will have known that only a point would very likely not be enough to see the team through to the knockout stages.

But the half-time substitution of Ante Budimir for Mario Pašalić instantly transformed the team.

Croatia dominated the early exchanges and had a glorious opportunity to take the lead from the penalty spot when a VAR review concluded Davide Frattesi handled the ball inside the area.

Modric saw his weak penalty kick saved by Donnarumma, only for the ball to fall back to the Croatia captain’s feet less than a minute later. This time, he made no mistake, firing the ball into the roof of the net after the Italian keeper had denied Budimir from close range.

Italy had the chance to respond almost immediately when Bastoni was left unmarked at a corner kick, but the defender spurned another glorious opportunity, this time placing his header over the crossbar.

If the scored stayed the same, Bastoni more than most would have been in for a few sleepless nights while Italy waited to find out whether it would reach the last 16 as one of the four best third-placed teams.

Fortunately for Bastoni, however, that nervous wait was avoided when Zaccagni made himself the unlikely hero with his first international goal, curling a sublime first-time effort into the top corner with unerring accuracy.

No matter how unconvincing Italy look, underestimate the Azzurri at your peril. Few teams in world football know how to eke out a result when it matters the most and there will not be a country that relishes the prospect of facing this resilient Italy team.

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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