It had been 24 years since Ireland last qualified for Euros and 10 years since they had played in any international tournament, but they were back in the spotlight for Euro 2012. Unfortunately for them, Croatia had no plans of rolling out the red carpet for them and instead welcomed them back to major competition with a 3-1 beating on Sunday in their Group C opener.
Croatia were ahead before the Irish in the stands could even enjoy being back in Euros. A third-minute corner kick was only cleared 20 yards, where Croatia grabbed it back and got it wide to Darijo Srna. He drove all the way to the end line before crossing. He got a break when the cross clipped off of Stephen Hunt and right into the path of Mario Mandzukic, whose header just got by Shay Given for the opening tally.
To Ireland's credit, they did have an answer. The set piece extraordinaires made on of their few early chances count when Sean St. Ledger got beat Vedran Corluka to a free kick and nodded it past a passive Stipe Pletikosa to equalize for the Irish.
The problem for the Irish is that they ended the half as badly as they started it. A simple clearance by Ward went awry and instead of booting it away from goal, he mishit it in behind the defense and right into the path of Nikica Jelavic. The Irish complained that he was offside, but because Ward played him in, the flag correctly stayed down and Jelavic finished to put the Croats in front.
The second 45 minutes brought more of the same for Croatia. Three minutes into the second half, Mandzukic got his second goal of the match when he was able to get away from his mark and head one off of the post. The ball bounced off of the post and off of the face of the diving Given before crossing the line to make it 3-1 Croatia. Sure, it should have been an own goal, but Mandzukic will take it and so would Croatia, who were in control.
Ireland kept trying late on and even came close as Croatia took their foot off the pedal, but this one was always going to go to Croatia. Robbie Keane had a penalty shot, but the referee waved it off for whatever bad reason he had. The Irish also shot wide on a couple good opportunities to make things seem interesting, but it wasn't. This one was Croatia's and when the final whistle blew, they had themselves three points and the top spot in Group C.