Croatia hold Italy amid flares, crowd trouble in Euro qualifier
Italy drew 1-1 against Croatia in a trouble-filled European Championship qualifier at the San Siro on Sunday, to leave both teams level at the top of their group.
The match had to be suspended for 10 minutes after Croatia fans threw fireworks onto the pitch. Riot police waded into the stands and eventually the final 17 minutes were played.
Play had also been halted in the first half for a few minutes under similar circumstances.
''I'm saddened by the fans' behavior,'' Croatia coach Niko Kovac said. ''I already apologized on the pitch and I apologize again, to everyone. I'm sorry.
''I didn't know what to do. I don't have words now. There were kids there. This is not football. This is not a fair image of our country or our people.''
Antonio Candreva scored his first Italy goal against the run of play in the 11th minute but Croatia leveled just four minutes later through Ivan Perisic following a rare howler from Italy goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon.
''I think we had the game under control for 90 minutes,'' Kovac added. ''They were good in defense but we had more opportunities and could have scored to take the three points home. I'm disappointed we didn't.''
Croatia was also guilty of several glaring misses, while Italy struggled to carve out clear goal-scoring opportunities.
''It was a tough match,'' Italy coach Antonio Conte said. ''We knew we were facing a strong and experienced team, with a lot of talented players. The positive aspect is that when we were under difficulty the lads showed spirit and conviction. I'm very happy with that.''
Both remained level on 10 points, one ahead of Norway, which won 1-0 in Azerbaijan, thanks to Havard Nordtveit's first-half header.
Azerbaijan was still without a point but Malta picked up its first point with a 1-1 draw away to Bulgaria, which moved onto four points.
Andrej Galabinov gave Bulgaria the perfect start in the sixth minute but Clayton Failla leveled from the spot in the 49th after Veselin Minev fouled Jean-Paul Farrugia.
There had been some concerns that Italy's match would be called off but the torrential rain in Milan stopped overnight and the pitch dried out.
Instead it was the fans which interrupted the match and, despite several public announcements, fireworks continued to rain down onto the pitch in the 73rd minute.
The referee ordered the players off the pitch and while the Italy team went back into the changing rooms, their opponents remained on the sidelines with coach Niko Kovac walking part of the way over to the fans throwing the fireworks.
After a delay of around 10 minutes, during which there also appeared to be a small fire in the stands, play was able to continue after riot police cleared a sector of fans.
''I feared the match wouldn't be able to continue,'' Conte said. ''I saw the referee very convinced after the last suspension and I knew that if one more thing happened he would call it off. We hope that in the future this doesn't happen again.''
Croatia had only ever lost once to Italy, their first meeting in 1942, winning three and drawing three.
It was all Croatia in the opening stages as Italy struggled to get out of its own half but it was the home side which took the lead when Simone Zaza's shot was charged down and, seeing his path blocked, the Sassuolo striker rolled it back for Candreva to drive into the bottom left corner.
Croatia leveled almost immediately after Perisic cut inside the left side of the area and fired under Buffon.
Play had to be temporarily halted for 90 seconds as Croatia fans threw flares onto the pitch and a public announcement was made shortly afterwards warning them not to repeat the incident.
There was a blow for Croatia as Luka Modric, one of its star players, was forced off injured and he was replaced by Inter Milan midfielder Mateo Kovacic.
Manuel Pasqual also hobbled off, paving the way for Sampdoria's Roberto Soriano to make his Italy debut.
Italy had a couple of half chances but it was Croatia which went closest on the stroke of halftime when Andrea Ranocchia cleared Ivica Olic's header off the line after Buffon flapped at a cross, with the Italy goalkeeper furiously complaining he had been fouled.
Stephan El Shaarawy almost marked his first Italy appearance since June 2013 with a great effort which scraped the top of the crossbar.
Croatia could have snatched the win three minutes from time when Perisic fired just wide of the far post.