One last attack. Eight minutes into the eight minutes of stoppage time and Italy were trailing, when out of defence strode Riccardo Calafiori, collected the ball and drove into the heart of Croatia’s defence.

By the time he was approaching the penalty area all those in chequered shirts were drawn towards him and Calafiori slipped a pass to his left where Mattia Zaccagni was all alone.

There were 10 Croatia players in the camera shot but nobody near the Lazio winger who had not come on until the 81st minute when Luciano Spalletti started to throw on all the forwards he could find on the bench

Zaccagni seized the chance, first time with his right foot, he went for goal, teasing a shot beyond the dive of Dominik Livakovic with plenty of curl. Everyone inside the Red Bull Arena in Leipzig held their breath and watched.

Even the incessant throbbing noise of the Croatia fans seemed to still as it sailed through the air. Then it hit the net, levelled the scores at 1-1 and the Italian contingent erupted. They have a new hero as they head for Berlin to face Switzerland in the last 16. One point was enough to clinch the runners-up spot behind Spain in Group B.

Mattia Zaccagni scored a stunning equaliser to book Italy's place in the last-16 at Euro 2024

Mattia Zaccagni scored a stunning equaliser to book Italy's place in the last-16 at Euro 2024

Mattia Zaccagni scored a stunning equaliser to book Italy’s place in the last-16 at Euro 2024

The Lazio winger kept his composure in the final moments and placed the ball in the top corner

The Lazio winger kept his composure in the final moments and placed the ball in the top corner

The Lazio winger kept his composure in the final moments and placed the ball in the top corner

Wild scenes ensued in the Leipzig Stadium as Italy booked their place in the knockout round

Wild scenes ensued in the Leipzig Stadium as Italy booked their place in the knockout round

Wild scenes ensued in the Leipzig Stadium as Italy booked their place in the knockout round

Luka Modric had converted from close range to put Croatia in the driving seats on the night

Luka Modric had converted from close range to put Croatia in the driving seats on the night

Luka Modric had converted from close range to put Croatia in the driving seats on the night

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‘We deserved to go through in terms of what we produced out there,’ said boss Spalletti in a passionate post-match exchange with Italian reporters. ‘Sure, we were a bit soft at times, didn’t play our best football but going through was fully deserved, warranted.

‘And it’s hard to make it through this group because you said to me it was the ‘Group of Death’. I didn’t’ say it was. There are top teams, Spain are brilliant and Croatia are excellent. We have got a result which was very challenging and its incredible what they have achieved.

‘Those who came off the bench are giants. They kept the game in the balance, they did things perfectly. They kept that shape despite the fact we were ultra offensive with six attacking players on the pitch.’

Croatian hearts were broken. The final whistle went almost straight after Zaccagni’s goal. ‘Cruel, football can be merciless,’ said Luka Modric, who had given his team the lead during an incredible three-minute spell early in the second half.

It was sparked by a penalty for a handball against Davide Frattesi, who had only been on the pitch for a few minutes.

Frattesi turned his back as Andrej Kramaric shaped a shot towards goal and it caught him on the arm. Referee Danny Makkelie did not notice but a VAR intervention and a trip to the pitchside monitor changed all that.

Modric put the ball on the spot and faced Gianluigi Donnarumma, hero of the tournament as Italy won it on penalties in 2021.

Donnarumma saved again, low to his left but that was not the end of it. Croatia kept the pressure on and delivered a cross from the right. Donnarumma made what was arguably an even better save to deny Ante Budimir from close range.

Croatia thought they were through after Modric's strike, only to be heartbroken late on

Croatia thought they were through after Modric's strike, only to be heartbroken late on

 Croatia thought they were through after Modric’s strike, only to be heartbroken late on

Just 32 seconds before Modric's goal, the Croatian watched his penalty kick get saved

Just 32 seconds before Modric's goal, the Croatian watched his penalty kick get saved

Just 32 seconds before Modric’s goal, the Croatian watched his penalty kick get saved

But Modric was onto the rebound in a flash, twisting as he fired high into the net from six yards out, in front the of noisiest section of Croatian supporters. Bedlam ensued.

MATCH FACTS AND RATINGS

Croatia (4-3-3): Livakovic 7.5; Stanisic 7, Sutalo 6, Pongracic 6.5, Gvardiol 6.5; Modric 8, Brozovic 7.5, Kovacic 7; Sucic 7, Kramaric 6.5, Mario Pasalic 5 (Budimir 46, 7).

Goals: Modric

Bookings: Susic, Modric, Brozovic, Stanisic, Pongracic

Manager: Zlatko Dalic 7

Italy (3-5-2): Donnarumma 8; Darmian 6 (Zaccagni 81), Bastoni 6, Calafiori 6.5; Di Lorenzo 6, Barella 7, Jorginho 6 (Fagioli 81′), Pellegrini 6.5 (Frattesi 46, 5), Dimarco 5 (Chiesa 57, 6); Raspadori 6 (Scamacca 75′), Retegui 6.

Goals: Zaccagni 90+10

Bookings: Calafiori

Manager: Lucaino Spalletti 6

Ref: Danny Makkelie (NED) 6

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With thumping drums, exploding bangers, flares and smoke canisters, it seemed at times as if we were playing this fixture 600 miles south in Zagreb but Italy, having given their shape a tweak to play with a back-three, had the best of a cagey first half.

The best opening came the way of Alessandro Bastoni, unmarked when found by Nicolo Barella.

The Inter Milan centre half seemed certain to score as he sprang up and timed his header, firm but straight above Dominik Livakovic who reacted brilliantly and pushed the ball over. Barella buried his face into the turf in disbelief. Bastoni applauded the keeper.

Livakovic made another smart save, low to his left from Lorenzo Pellegrini on the turn before half time. Croatia were more daring in the second half, sending on Budimir and releasing Josko Gvardiol on muscular forays forward from left back.

The pressure told, with the VAR penalty, the Modric goal and all the drama that followed. Suddenly it was a different game.

Italy acquired new urgency as they set about launching a response as Croatia dug in to defend. ‘Eight minutes of added time is a nonsense,’ said Dalic, who took Modric off 10 minutes from time and he went off to a standing ovation and cries of ‘Luka, Luka’.

We may not see the little maestro again at a major tournament but if this was his last stand he leaves with a record, the oldest goalscorer at a Euros, aged 38 and 289 days.

After being substituted in the match, Modric was forced to watch on as Croatia let the lead slip

After being substituted in the match, Modric was forced to watch on as Croatia let the lead slip

After being substituted in the match, Modric was forced to watch on as Croatia let the lead slip

Bastoni headed over from a corner. Crosses flashed in from both flanks eluding those in blue shirts. Shots were blocked by defenders throwing themselves in the line of fire but Croatia seemed just as likely to score a second on the break as concede.

Then came Calafiori’s run and pass and Zaccagni’s goal.

‘It was very stressful,’ said Modric. ‘Football gives you smiles but it can make you sad. It’s hard when you lose like this to find the words to describe how you feel. 

‘Perhaps it’s unfair. We fought for Croatia from first whistle to the last and the result is what it is. We can be proud of the way we represented our country.’

While Croatia are not officially out of the competition, it’s expected that they will not be one of the team’s to qualify as one of the tournament’s best third-place teams. 

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