- Associated Press - Friday, June 12, 2015

Croatia maintained its two-point lead over Italy atop Group H after drawing 1-1 against the Azzurri in a European Championship qualifying match in Split on Friday.

However, the game between the two sides will again be overshadowed by side events as a swastika pattern was clearly seen etched onto the pitch. The November qualifier at San Siro - which also ended in a 1-1 draw - was temporarily halted by crowd trouble.

Croatia had to play Friday’s match without any fans as punishment for racist chanting and other misconduct during last month’s qualifier against Norway.

“It’s one of our problems and we are working to fix it,” said Davor Suker, the president of the Croatian football association. “Unfortunately something happened tonight too, but we would prefer not to talk about it now, we’ll talk about it from tomorrow.”

It was unclear whether the symbol was mowed into the pitch or painted on the grass, but it was clearly marked in the middle of the half Italy was attacking in the first period.

Grounds crew attempted to cover it up during halftime, but to little avail.

On the pitch, Mario Mandzukic saw a penalty saved by Gianluigi Buffon before scoring the opener. He also gave away a spot kick which Antonio Candreva converted for the equalizer in the 36th.

Norway remained third - two points behind Italy - following a 0-0 draw at home against Azerbaijan. Bulgaria was two points further back after winning 1-0 in Malta.

The result in Split saw Italy stretch its unbeaten run in qualifiers for European Championships and World Cups to 46 matches.

The match got off to a lively start as Croatia was awarded a sixth-minute penalty when Davide Astori clumsily tripped Darijo Srna near the byline.

However, Buffon guessed correctly and dove smartly to his right to parry Mandzukic’s tame spot kick.

Croatia did take the lead just five minutes later, shortly after Stephan El Shaarawy tapped in from eight yards but had his goal incorrectly ruled offside. While several Italy players were protesting to the officials, Croatia resumed play and Mandzukic scored on the counter-attack.

“We could have won,” Italy coach Antonio Conte said. “In the first match they deserved to win, tonight we did. A lot of strange things happened tonight.

“We were celebrating, the assistant referee took several second to decide it was offside which it wasn’t and from that counter we went behind. It’s a lesson. You should never celebrate, never protest until the official points to the middle of the pitch. But certainly the referee too, in that strange situation, could have found a way to stop play.”

Italy suffered a further blow in the 27th minute when Lorenzo De Silvestri had to be carried off - clearly in agony - after injuring his knee as he prevented Mateo Kovacic from scoring a second goal. Buffon also had to be replaced at halftime after playing with 10 stitches in his knee after he was injured in the opening goal.

Srna was sent off in the final minute after the Croatia captain picked up a second booking.

Norway missed the opportunity to make up ground on Croatia and Italy.

Azerbaijan goalkeeper Kamran Agayev pulled off a string of fine saves, while Alexander Soederlund had a first-half goal ruled out for offside and Even Hovland headed substitute Pal Andre Helland’s cross off the post with four minutes remaining.

Azerbaijan ended a run of five consecutive away defeats but remained fifth.

In Malta, Ivelin Popov scored in the 56th minute to hand Bulgaria only its second win of the qualifying campaign.

Ilian Micanski had sent a spot kick wide for Bulgaria on the stroke of halftime after Ryan Camilleri impeded Vladimir Gadzhev.

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This story has been corrected to show closed-door punishment was because of racist chanting in match against Norway.


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