Mandzukic wins battle of Super Marios

One Mario is announcing himself as one of Euro 2012's biggest handfuls while another Mario is proving more of a handful for his coach than opposing defenders.

Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic scored with his first genuine chance after 72 minutes to give his side a 1-1 draw with Italy in their second Group C match on Thursday but more illustrious namesake Balotelli was again found wanting.

The Manchester City front-man, who probably earns at least double what Mandzukic does and almost certainly drives a much faster car, should be lighting up the tournament as one of the most exciting attacking talents around.

Instead he is trudging off the field midway through the second half having failed to make any real impression and although Italy have looked good in spells and face Ireland next, progression to the quarter-finals is by no means certain.

In contrast, Mandzukic is using his physical strength, unlike Balotelli, to bully defenders and impose himself while being clinical when it matters most.

One and a half goals in the opening 3-1 win over Ireland, where his second header went in off keeper Shay Given, were followed by a real poacher's equaliser against Italy which could be priceless to Croatia's chances of going through.

Largely unknown to the less obsessive viewers of the European Championship, VfL Wolfsburg's Mandzukic could have many bigger clubs knocking on his door in the next few weeks.

Italy's defence rarely makes mistakes, as seen in the 1-1 opening draw with holders Spain, but when Giorgio Chiellini got caught under a high cross the 26-year-old knew this would be Croatia's biggest chance to get back into the game.


His first touch was not the best but he stretched every sinew to slam the ball past Gianluigi Buffon and put Slaven Bilic's side level in a game which should have been long gone.

Part of the reason Italy had not put the Poznan match to bed was 21-year-old Balotelli.

He was better than against Spain, when Antonio Di Natale's quick goal after coming on had led to speculation Balotelli would be dropped, but he still did not do enough to convince he is truly worthy of Italy's No. 9 shirt.

A Filippo Inzaghi or a Paolo Rossi would have been buzzing about far more and would possibly have put one of his early chances away.

An early decent effort flew wide and a second thunderous but directionless shot was straight at the goalkeeper, meaning Italy were mightily relieved their dominance was rewarded when Andrea Pirlo's 39th-minute free-kick dipped in.

Another blasted shot wide and one over the bar were the sum total of Balotelli's second half before a sulky substitution, but signs of promise and hopeful efforts will be forgotten at this level where it is goals and goals only that count.

Whether he stays in the starting line-up for the decisive final group clash with Ireland on Monday remains to be seen but Mandzukic certainly will be facing Spain unless a late injury rules him out.