Poznan, Poland, June 15 : A relative unknown at international level and close to being disowned by his club, Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic is becoming a star of the European Championship.
His three goals in two matches, as well as his tireless endeavor, have given Croatia a real chance of qualifying for the quarterfinals.
Mandzukic's equalizer in the 72nd minute on Thursday earned his side a 1-1 draw with Italy and a share of top place in Group C with Spain.
“First, I dreamed of Croatia beating Ireland and me scoring my first goal in the Euros, and then I dreamed of going against (Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi) Buffon to see his eyes and scoring a goal,” said Mandzukic.
“My next dream is to see Croatia go to the quarterfinals.”
Before Euro 2012, there were doubts that the 26-year-old striker would figure in Croatia's starting lineup.
His German club VfL Wolfsburg was making noises of getting rid of him at the right price, thought to be around ¤10 million.
However, an injury to Ivica Olic, Croatia's first-choice striker for the best part of a decade, forced coach Slaven Bilic into a rethink.
He opted for the powerful, but inexperienced, frontline of Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic, who scored a goal in Croatia's 3-1 victory over Ireland in its first Group C match. Neither has played in an international tournament before.
Mandzukic is also Euro 2012's joint leading scorer with Germany's Mario Gomez and Russia's Alan Dzagoev.
But it's not just his scoring ability that's impressed at the tournament so far.
His combative play was crucial to Croatia's recovery in the second half of its game against Italy.
Swamped in midfield in the first half, Bilic rang the changes for the second to make Croatia more compact.
One of his main changes was to move Mandzukic to the right wing in an attempt to contain Italy's wing-backs Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini.
“He played a different position in the second half, he played right winger and helped us a lot in defending, and he showed how much power he has upfront as well and in defense,” said Croatia defender Vedran Corluka. “He's a great player.”
It was from that right wing position that Mandzukic drifted in to score. He managed to control a long cross from Ivan Strinic and drove in a shot off the post. Against Ireland, Mandzukic scored with two headers.
“He's a player who's always going to give 100 percent in a game, he's going to run his socks off,” said midfielder Niko Kranjcar. “He's had a great season in Germany and he came really prepared for the tournament and he used his chances.
He's the most competitive player I've ever seen, he's similar like Olic, who always leaves his heart on the pitch.”