MILAN (AFP) – Croatia extended their 72-year unbeaten run over Italy to seven matches after holding the Azzurri to a 1-1 draw in a Euro 2016 qualifier that saw a 10-minute stoppage after visiting fans targeted ‘keeper Gianluigi Buffon with flares.
Italy, who last beat Croatia in 1942 (although Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia from WWII until 1992), took the lead after only 11 minutes when Simone Zaza set up Antonio Candreva to beat Monaco ‘keeper Danijel Subasic with a fine strike from 20 metres out.
But Croatia levelled only four minutes later when Wolfsburg midfielder Ivan Perisic beat a sluggish Gianluigi Buffon down low.
Croatia suffered a blow when Luka Modric hobbled off before the half-hour to be replaced by Inter Milan playmaker Mateo Kovacic.
But the visitors made light of the Real Madrid midfielder’s absence for the remainder of the match that they should have wrapped up in the final 10 minutes only for Perisic to fire a great chance wide of the target.
Croatia remained top of Group H with Italy still in second spot having now failed to beat their rivals in their past seven games.
Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli, called up for the first time under Antonio Conte last week, and Juventus defender Angelo Ogbonna were both missing after succumbing to late injuries.
Conte was also without Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti, with Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi given the central midfield role on what was his 100th Azzurri appearance.
Simone Zaza and Ciro Immobile led Italy’s attack, but the first sniff of goal came from Niko Kovac’s men in the opening minutes after Ivan Ratikic stung Buffon’s palms at the keeper’s near post.
Buffon blocked easily, but the resulting corner forced Buffon out to block at the feet of Perisic before Domagoj Vida fired over from close in.
It was an early warning of Croatia’s potency but Italy were briefly celebrating when Zaza’s cutback set up Candreva just outside the area to fire a fierce drive past the flailing Subasic on 11 minutes.
Four minutes later Perisic was given just a fraction of time on the left flank but used it to drill a shot through three Italy players and under the body of beaten Buffon.
Conte made his first change with Manuel Pasqual, clutching his hip, coming off to give Sampdoria’s Roberto Soriano his first Azzurri cap.
Both Zaza and De Sciglio then spurned half-chances but Croatia finished the half strongest, Andrea Ranocchia forced to clear off the goalline after Buffon was stranded as he came out to clear.
Zaza seized the hosts first chance after the restart but saw Subasic save his low drive. Buffon was forced to save twice quickly from Kovacic and then Mario Mandzukic’s header from the edge of the box.
Conte replaced Immobile with Stephan El Shaarawy on 50 minutes, prompting a tactical switch that put Croatia in control and left Italy ball-watching for a 10-minute spell that only ended when Rakitic tested Buffon with a first-time shot from 20 metres out.
As whistles rained down from the Italy supporters, Conte replaced Zaza with Southampton striker Graziano Pelle just after the hour, but the real drama unfolded when referee Bjorn Kuipers halted the match for a 10-minute spell when Croatia fans rained flares down onto the pitch.
Both Pelle and El Shaarawy came close for Italy late on but Perisic should have wrapped the match up for Croatia in the closing minutes when he ran down in space on the left only to flash his drive wide of Buffon’s upright.