Czech Republic came back from two goals down to pin back EURO 2016 Group D leaders Croatia to a 2-2 draw in Saint-Etienne as Pavel Vrba’s men salvaged hope of progressing into the tournament’s last-16.
Late goals from substitutes Milan Skoda and Tomas Necid (pen) helped the Czechs take home a share of the spoils after 100 minutes of football inside the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, after Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic had put the Blazers into cruise control after establishing a two-goal cushion on the hour-mark.
Czech boss Vrba made two changes from the starting eleven that lost 1-0 to defending European Champions Spain – with forwards Jiri Skalak and David Lafata coming in for Theodor Gebre Selassie and Necid.
Meanwhile Croatian manager Ante Cacic’s line-up remained unchanged following his side’s 1-0 victory over Turkey on Sunday night, which match winner Luka Modric starring in central midfield.
And it was Cacic’s men who convincingly dominated the opening 45 minutes inside the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard; with midfielders Modric and Rakitic, in particular, running the show from the centre of the park.
However the game’s first clear cut chance didn’t fall to the Croatians until the 21st minute, as winger Perisic was just inches away from getting on the end of Mario Mandzukic’s low cross – any contact and he would have given his country the lead.
Playmaker Rakitic then decided to have a go himself; magnificently weaving his way past a couple of challenges before cutting inside on his left foot and unleashing an effort, only for goalkeeper Petr Cech to save well with his feet.
However with just eight minutes to go until the interval, the Croatians finally broke the deadlock and scored a goal they thoroughly deserved. The lively Perisic picked the ball up 40 yards from goal on the left-flank, before rapidly advancing forward and blasting the ball into the bottom far corner to leave Cech helpless.
Just five minutes later, the leaders could have doubled their advantage, but defender Vedran Corluka and Domagoj Vida got in each other’s way after both attacking a dangerous free-kick.
Comfortably on top at the break; Croat boss Cacic was happy with his starting eleven’s first-half control and refrained from making any changes, as did Czech manager Vrba, despite his side staring at back-to-back defeats.
It proved to be costly as Croatia did eventually double their advantage in Saint-Etienne after tucking away their second goal of the match shortly before the hour-mark.
An alert Mario Brozovic capitalised on a poor defensive error and threaded through the advancing Rakitic, who neatly clipped the ball over a despairing Cech to send his country on their way to the tournament’s last-16.
The FC Barcelona was in the mood for goals and fancied a brace, but his free-kick effort curled over Cech’s bombarded goal frame.
Then out of nowhere and against the run of play, Czech Republic gave themselves a lifeline as substitute Skoda powerfully headed home Tomas Rosicky’s inviting cross with just 14 minutes remaining.
After assisting his country’s second strike, Brozovic fancied getting himself on the scoresheet, but his clever shot on the turn was well defended by the desperate Czechs heading into the final ten minutes.
Then came the controversy. Flares were thrown onto the turf by Croatian fans in the west, before fights broke out in the stands as referee Mark Clattenburg was forced to suspend play for nearly ten minutes.
Once play had finally got back underway, it seemed the distraction behind the Czech’s goal effected the players on the pitch, as Vrba’s side took advantage and somehow drew level after being outplayed for most of the encounter.
A barrage of crosses were delivered into the Croatian penalty area, before centre-half Vida clumsily handled the ball to give official Clattenburg no choice but to point to the spot in the third minute of stoppage-time.
Bursaspor striker Necid, who was dropped ahead of kick-off in Saint-Etienne, calmly stepped up and smashed the ball into the roof of the net to dramatically earn the Czech Republic a share of the spoils and avoid suffering back-to-back defeats.
Despite having never defeated Croatia in their two previous meetings, Vrba’s men made up for their woeful first-half display to draw the first-ever competitive meeting between these two countries – helping the Czech’s record their first point of this summer’s European Championships.
Man of the Match: Ivan Rakitic (Croatia)
The central midfielder was at the heart of Croatia’s admirable and creative offensive play as the Blazers took total control inside the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard up to the hour-mark.
After Perisic’s opener, the 28-year-old doubled his side’s lead with an exquisite chip over Arsenal shot stopper Cech – a strike that was deemed as the second killer goal before the Czech’s late revival.
The FC Barcelona ace almost set-up Mandzukic in the second-half, but the Juventus striker couldn’t adjust his feet in time, before Rakitic tried his luck from a 25-yard free-kick, only for the ball to sail over.
With fellow midfield maestro Modric limping off in the second period, Rakitic could become Croatia’s key man as they look to advance into the last-16 of the tournament and beyond.
Group D leaders Croatia take on second-placed Spain in Bordeaux on Tuesday. Meanwhile, third-placed Czech Republic go head-to-head with rock-bottom Turkey in Lens on the same night.