Rampant Croatia took a big step towards qualifying for next year’s World Cup with a 4-1 demolition of Greece in a first-leg European play-off on Thursday.
Croatia were 2-0 up inside 20 minutes from Luka Modric’s penalty and Nikola Kalinic, Sokratis pulled one back out of the blue, but Ivan Perisic in the 32nd and Andrej Kramaric shortly after the restart further punished shocking Greek defending in Zagreb.
Greece now need a miracle to reverse matters in the return leg Sunday in Piraeus while Croatia are firmly on course to reach the World Cup a record fifth time via the play-offs.
Switzerland are also well-placed after winning 1-0 in Northern Ireland from a controversial penalty awarded by Romanian referee Ovidiu Hateganby and converted by Ricardo Rodriguez.
Sweden v Italy is played Friday and Denmark v Ireland Saturday. The return legs follow Sunday through Tuesday.
Croatia had not fully fit Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic on the bench, with AC Milan’s Kalinic taking his place and making an instant impact.
Greece goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis failed to control a back-pass and then brought down the onrushing Kalinic, and Modric cooly converted the ensuing spot kick into the right corner.
Croatia were awarded again six minutes later when Kalinic flicked home at the near post off Ivan Strinic’s cross from the left.
The early goals ruined Greece’s aim to stand firm even without suspended key defender Kostas Manolas, but they were surprisingly back in the game on the half-hour mark when sloppy defending gave then a corner kick which Sokratis headed in for 2-1.
Croatia were not rattled though as Inter’s Perisic restored the two-goal advantage in the 32nd by nodding home Sime Vrsaljko’s cross; and Hoffenheim’s Kramaric tapped the fourth in the 48th after another terrible defensive error, this time from Konstantinos Stafylidis who later cried bitter tears on the subs’ bench.
Kostas Mitroglou was then twice denied improving Greece’s fortunes late in the game by Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic.
“We made big defensive mistakes at the start of each half. Croatia then got into a frenzy,” Greece coach Michael Skibbe told German RTL Nitro television, pledging to put up a decent fight on Sunday.
At Belfast’s Windosr Park, the visiting Swiss were lucky not to have Fabian Schar sent off early but were in full control as Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka fired inches high in the 10th and Hasan’s Seferovic’s volley off Xherdan Shaqiri’s long cross was well saved by goalkeeper Michael McGovern.
Shaqiri’s volley then hit the upper arm of Corry Evans, harshly deemed a penalty which Rodriguez converted in the 58th. Evans was also booked and is suspended for the return leg.
Josh Magennis headed wide from a promising position on Northern Ireland’s only notable chance. But after recording no shot on target their dream of making the World Cup for the first time since 1986 appears all but over.
“The penalty was a little harsh but we deserved the victory,” Swiss coach Vladimir Petkovic told Swiss TV.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill was furious about the penalty, telling Sky: “I’m staggered by the decision, staggered by the yellow card. It’s such a defining moment in the match.”