Last-gasp Zaccagni saves Italy and pushes Croatia towards Euros exit as Spain top group

Croatia’s defender #02 Josip Stanisic and Italy’s forward #20 Mattia Zaccagni fight for the ball during the UEFA Euro 2024 Group B football match between Croatia and Italy at the Leipzig Stadium in Leipzig on June 24, 2024. AFP

Mattia Zaccagni kept Italy’s European Championship title defence alive with an incredible late equaliser in the holder’s thrilling 1-1 draw with Croatia, as Spain completed a perfect group stage and showed Albania the door.

Italy are in the last 16 of Euro 2024 after forward Zaccagni struck a superb equaliser with almost the last kick of the game in Leipzig, sparking an explosion of joy among the Italian fans and even a sprint up the line from 65-year-old coach Luciano Spalletti.

The Azzurri will play Switzerland in the next round thanks to Zaccagni, who came on with nine minutes remaining and curled in his leveller in the eighth minute of stoppage time following a brilliant burst and pass from defender Riccardo Calafiori.

“Nobody believed any more, but the players did,” Spalletti told Sky Sport in Italy, before raging at critics in the Italian press pack.

In a furious press conference Spalletti said “I inject myself with this venom” which he said was coming “from all sides” and blasted unnamed people within Italy’s camp for potentially leaking his team’s formation to the media.

Spalletti’s team finish Group B in second place on four points, five behind winners Spain who beat Albania 1-0 thanks to a neat Ferran Torres finish in the 13th minute in Dusseldorf.

Albania’s Euros adventure is over following a defeat which also means that England, France and the Netherlands are guaranteed a place in the next round at least as one of the four best third-placed teams.

Croatia meanwhile are all-but out due to Zaccagni’s late equaliser just as it looked as if Luka Modric was once again going to be the hero for his country.

Modric defied his advancing years by firing Croatia into the lead nine minutes after the break and becoming the oldest goalscorer in Euros history.

At 38 years and 289 days old, Modric broke the record set by Austrian Ivica Vastic in 2008, pouncing on a rebound after Gianluigi Donnarumma made an incredible save from Ante Budimir’s point-blank range header.

Modric made up for Donnarumma pushing away his penalty just moments before, but his goal wasn’t enough and on two points third-placed Croatia’s hopes are hanging by a thread.

“It’s hard when you lose like this to find the words to describe how you feel,” said Modric.

Misfiring England ‘favourites’

England, on four points, can seal first place in Group C with a win over Slovenia on Tuesday, but Gareth Southgate’s team come into the match in some turmoil after a laborious start to the tournament.

On Sunday, captain Harry Kane insisted Southgate was the right man to manage England after widespread criticism of his tactics and team selection following two sub-par displays against the Serbs and the Danes.

Southgate, who has led England to deep runs at the previous three major tournaments, has a squad packed to the gills with talent.

And although England have not lived up to their billing as pre-tournament favourites Kane said “his record speaks for itself”.

Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek agreed with Kane, saying his team, who will qualify with a win over England, “are playing against one of the favourites, if not the favourites, for the tournament”.

Should England top the group they could have the chance to exact some revenge on Italy for defeat in the Euro 2020 final in the quarters, while second spot would mean facing hosts Germany in the last 16.

France trail Group D leaders Netherlands on goal difference as the pair vie for top spot on Tuesday and Les Bleus’ Kylian Mbappe continues his recovery from a broken nose suffered in his team’s opening win over Austria.

Earlier on Monday, France coach Didier Deschamps said Mbappe was “eager to play” against eliminated Poland but gave no indication as to whether the superstar forward would start in Dortmund.

France lacked cutting edge without Mbappe in their goalless draw with the Netherlands and although the 25-year-old has never scored in the Euros fans are as eager for his return as he is to play.

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