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Soccer-Croatia just can't seem to get it right at the Euros

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HAMBURG, Germany, June 19 (Reuters) -Croatia's fans have been spoiled for success in recent years, but they could be forgiven for wondering whether the side that turns up at the European Championships bears any resemblance to their World Cup overachievers.

Their Euro 2024 hopes were left hanging by a thread after another sleepy display against Albania on Wednesday in which they switched off at key moments and failed to put their opponents to the sword in a 2-2 draw.

For a brief time in the second half, they played with the same style and thrust as the teams that reached the World Cup final in 2018 and the semis four years later.

But for all of the first half and the final 10 minutes of the second they resembled the Croatia that has never been past the quarter-finals at the European Championship and fell in the last 16 at the previous two editions.

After their 3-0 defeat by Spain in their Group B opener, Croatia needed a fast start. Instead they produced the opposite, falling behind after 11 minutes when Qazim Laci ghosted in and glanced home a header that Croatia keeper Dominik Livakovic should have kept out.

What followed was a soporific display of the art of passing for passing's sake. If passing teams to death was a successful strategy then Croatia would be football's most lethal executioners. But hogging the ball in the first half with over 60% possession got them nowhere.

It was a similar story in their opener when they had more possession than Spain - the first team to do so in 136 competitive matches since the Euro 2008 final - but ended up losing 3-0.

Like a medieval army picking an elevated spot to engage in battle, Albania were happy to concede territory up the field in favour of packing the final third, safe in the knowledge that Croatia would not hurt them.

That strategy fell apart in the second half, however, after Croatia brought on substitutes Luka Sucic and Mario Pasalic in the break and looked almost unrecognisable as they tore into their opponents.

They levelled when Andrej Kramaric shot through the legs of Elseid Hysaj into the bottom corner in the 73rd minute and took the lead when Albania's Klaus Gjasula saw the ball bounce off him into his own goal.

That should have been the cue for Croatia to twist the knife or at least shut up shop. Instead they seemed to slacken off and invite the Albanians back into the match.

It was deep in stoppage time when Albania drew level, with Gjasula drilling his finish hard and low into net to make up for his earlier own goal.

Croatia's fans were silenced and no doubt thinking they had seen this all before at the Euros.

At Euro 2020, Zlatko Dalic's side conceded twice in extra time in a 5-3 last-16 defeat to Spain, while in 2016 they conceded with three minutes left of extra time against eventual champions Portugal at the same stage.

In 2012 they didn't escape the group stage after Spain bagged an 88th-minute winner in their final game and there was a similar tale of woe in 2008 when they lost on penalties in the quarters.

They will now almost certainly need to beat Italy in their final group game on Monday to have any chance of reaching the knockouts.

Croatian fans will be hoping it's their World Cup side who turn up in Leipzig rather than the Euros one that just can't seem to get it right.

Reporting by Toby Davis; Editing by Hugh Lawson


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