Azzurri still can't figure out Croats
Niko Kovac (above). PHOTO: AFP
Ugly flare-throwing incidents at Milan's storied San Siro Stadium deflected the glare from under-par Italy as they scraped a precious Euro 2016 qualifying point at home to impressive Group H leaders Croatia.
Croatia crossed the Adriatic hoping to protect an impressive unbeaten record against the Italians that stretched back to 1942 when the Azzurri beat the then-Yugoslavia 4-0 in Genoa.
While Croatia coach Niko Kovac spent most of the post-match period making apologies for the disruptive behaviour of his country's notoriously difficult fans, he will know that ultimately his side underlined their superiority against an Italy outfit who, after a second consecutive first-round exit from the World Cup last summer, are now in rebuilding mode.
Croatia remain top of Group H with Italy still in second spot, having now failed to beat their rivals in their past seven games.
Antonio Conte's biggest worry is Italy's apparent inferiority to Croatia, whose biggest achievement in international terms was a third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup, a trophy the Azzurri have won four times.
"Croatia are strong, they're well-prepared and have great individual players who play at the top level. They gave us a tough match," said the Italian coach.
"In the circumstances and in terms of our objectives, I'm happy with our performance.
"I don't want the media to criticise our squad. We still have progress to make."
But Conte reacted angrily to questions over why Mario Balotelli was sent home from the squad.
The Liverpool striker was allowed to return to England after picking up a groin injury, but reports in Italy suggested Balotelli had in fact fallen out with Conte upon his return to the Azzurri set-up after becoming annoyed at the prospect of starting the match on the bench.
Conte, however, refused to pay any attention to the speculation.
"I'll keep Balotelli's evaluation to myself... Now that's enough," Conte snapped to Rai Sport.
"There are effectively too many injuries. I talked to [team doctor Enrico] Castellacci and next time we'll be more careful and we won't do certain things."
Italy also lost Marco Verratti to injury, with Andrea Pirlo not fit and Leonardo Bonucci banned for the Croatia clash.