Croatia moved closer to next year’s World Cup with an emphatic 4-1 home win over Greece on Thursday in the first leg of their two-legged playoff after the Balkan nation produced their most impressive qualifying performance.
The result left the Greeks with a difficult task to overhaul the deficit in Athens on Sunday if they are to reach their third successive finals.
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic, in charge for only his second game after overseeing a 2-0 win over Ukraine in the final group match which took them into the playoffs, was happy but also struck a note of caution.
“We must root out any complacency immediately and head to Greece as if the score was 0-0,” Dalic, who took over from Ante Cacic after Croatia had slipped from first to third in their qualifying group, told the HRT state broadcaster.
“The basic idea was to raid them on both flanks and the strategy worked. I am not happy with the goal we conceded but in the end it’s a very good result,” he added.
Striker Nikola Kalinic, who stood in for the injured Mario Mandzukic, won a penalty for Croatia’s opening goal scored by captain Luka Modric and netted the second with a deft touch to give the home side a 2-0 lead at Maksimir stadium.
Kalinic latched on to a fizzing low cross by left back Ivan Strinic as Croatia did the damage on either flank in an action-packed first half.
Sokratis Papastathopoulos pulled one back for Greece before Ivan Perisic made it 3-1 with a thumping close-range header, following a superb cross by right back Sime Vrsaljko.
Andrej Kramaric scored Croatia’s fourth shortly after the break, poking the ball in from two metres after Vrsaljko had cut out a poor back pass.
Croatia could have won by a bigger margin but for fine work by Greek goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis, who made a double save to deny Kramaric and Kalinic on the stroke of halftime.
The visitors, missing injured full back Vasilis Torosidis and suspended central defender Kostas Manolas, were rarely able to venture forward with a conservative formation featuring Konstantinos Mitroglou as the lone striker.
Croatia keeper Danijel Subasic pulled off a good save to keep out a Mitroglou header in the 89th minute, making sure his side headed to Athens with a three-goal advantage.
Dalic also praised the vocal home fans, who packed the Maksimir stadium after Croatia played some qualifiers in front of poor crowds.
“They gave us the right kind of support and the players responded with a blistering display,” he said. “We have top performers who are a formidable team when they have the right approach.
“The adventurous formation paid off with Modric deployed in a more attacking position and the full backs overlapping on the flanks to keep up the pressure.”