Croatia’s Mandzukic takes Euro 2012 by storm

A relative unknown at international level and close to being

disowned by his club, Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic is becoming a

star of the European Championship.

His three goals in two matches, as well as his tireless

endeavor, have given Croatia a real chance of qualifying for the

quarterfinals. Mandzukic’s equalizer in the 72nd minute on Thursday

earned his side a 1-1 draw with Italy and a share of top place in

Group C with Spain.

”First, I dreamed of Croatia beating Ireland and me scoring my

first goal in the Euros, and then I dreamed of going against (Italy

goalkeeper Gianluigi) Buffon to see his eyes and scoring a goal,”

said Mandzukic.

”My next dream is to see Croatia go to the quarterfinals.”

Before Euro 2012, there were doubts that the 26-year-old striker

would figure in Croatia’s starting lineup. His German club VfL

Wolfsburg was making noises of getting rid of him at the right

price, thought to be around ?10 million.

However, an injury to Ivica Olic, Croatia’s first-choice striker

for the best part of a decade, forced coach Slaven Bilic into a

rethink.

He opted for the powerful, but inexperienced, frontline of

Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic, who scored a goal in Croatia’s 3-1

victory over Ireland in its first Group C match. Neither has played

in an international tournament before.

Mandzukic is also Euro 2012’s joint leading scorer with

Germany’s Mario Gomez and Russia’s Alan Dzagoev.

But it’s not just his scoring ability that’s impressed at the

tournament so far.

His combative play was crucial to Croatia’s recovery in the

second half of its game against Italy. Swamped in midfield in the

first half, Bilic rang the changes for the second to make Croatia

more compact.

One of his main changes was to move Mandzukic to the right wing

in an attempt to contain Italy’s wing-backs Christian Maggio and

Emanuele Giaccherini.

”He played a different position in the second half, he played

right winger and helped us a lot in defending, and he showed how

much power he has upfront as well and in defense,” said Croatia

defender Vedran Corluka. ”He’s a great player.”

It was from that right wing position that Mandzukic drifted in

to score. He managed to control a long cross from Ivan Strinic and

drove in a shot off the post. Against Ireland, Mandzukic scored

with two headers.

”He’s a player who’s always going to give 100 percent in a

game, he’s going to run his socks off,” said midfielder Niko

Kranjcar. ”He’s had a great season in Germany and he came really

prepared for the tournament and he used his chances. He’s the most

competitive player I’ve ever seen, he’s similar like Olic, who

always leaves his heart on the pitch.”