ZAGREB (CROATIA): The Croatian national football team made a big step toward the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, beating Greece 4-1 in the first leg of the European playoffs played in front of over 30,000 fans at the Maksimir stadium here.
The strong Greek defense, that had been singled out as the main quality of the visiting team before the match, fell apart after just 30 minutes of play, reports Xinhua news agency.
Croatian pressure was too hard for the Greeks to sustain and forced them into mistakes. In the 13th minute, Greek goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis made a mistake receiving the ball and fouled Nikola Kalinic in the penalty area.
Croatian captain Luka Modric scored his first goal in this qualifying campaign as his shot from the penalty spot found the net, sending the Greek keeper the wrong way.
Croatia need just six more minutes to score for the second time. Ivan Strinic broke on the left and returned the ball into the middle where Inter Milan striker Nikola Kalinic was faster than Greek defenders and put the ball into the net with a clever heel shot.
In the 30th minute, Greek captain Papastathopoulos beat Croatian defenders in the air and his header was out of reach for home goalkeeper Daniel Subasic.
But the Greek celebration didn't last for long. Just three minutes later, Croatia again reached a two goal advantage. This time, the deadly cross came from the right side off the foot of Sime Vrsaljko.
Ivan Perisic met the ball on the far post and easily put the header into the net from close range. The Inter Milan forward scored his first goal in over a year for the national team, and he could harldy have chosen a better time for it.
Another mistake that the Greek defense made under pressure came from a Croatian team effort that led to the fourth goal from the home team.
In the 49th minute, Sime Vrsaljko sneaked behind the back of Kostas Stafylidis and beat the Greek goalkeeper to the ball, flicked it to Andrej Kramaric and the Hoffenheim striker scored his third goal in the last two matches since Zlatko Dalic took over as an interim national head coach.
"It was a great display from our side but this is just the first half. We don't need euphoria. We will travel to Greece and prepare like the result in Zagreb was 0-0," Croatian head coach Zlatko Dalic said.
Real Madrid star Luka Modric was master of the show.
"The whole team played great. It was a great display but we just did the first half of the job. We will need to play just as good in Greece as we did tonight. It would be a tragedy to let this chance go," Modric said after the match.
Greece will host the Croatians at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus on Sunday.