Croatia welcomed Greece to the Stadion Maksimir for the first of the two World Cup qualifying playoff legs between these two proud footballing nations. The outcome of these two fixtures will decide which team will travel to Russia next summer, and neither side has ever failed to make it through the playoffs before this year so something has to give. Croatia went into this game knowing that they needed a positive result at home to take into the second leg, while Greece were looking for an upset to give themselves an easier game in the Karaiskakis Stadium.
Shambolic goalkeeping gifts Croatia the lead
Despite the lack of away fans the atmosphere inside the Stadion Maksimir was electric and provided a menacing backdrop what looked like it would be a huge defensive effort from Greece, who were immediately put on the back foot by the home side. The Croatians could easily have taken the lead within five minutes after a Luka Modric corner turned into a game of pinball in the 18-yard box, but eventually Domagoj Vida’s looping header was easily dealt with by Orestis Karnezis.
The home side dominated the early possession and Greece’s famous defence struggled to soak up the pressure. A risky back pass to Karnezis was miscontrolled by the Greek shot stopper, who subsequently brought down Nikola Kalinic to give Croatia an early penalty. It was Modric who stepped up from 12 yards and buried his spot kick down the middle, not only giving the home side an important lead in this game but also the overall advantage in the two-legged tie.
The opening goal seemed to knock the stuffing out of the visitors and it wasn’t long before Croatia doubled their lead. Some good work down the left flank by Ivan Strinic culminated in a simple cross to Kalinic, who converted with a sumptuous flick to give the home side a commanding lead. Down by two the Greeks still struggled to get any sort of foothold in the game and Croatia began to pass fairly simply around the visitors. Their star-studded midfield dictated both the tempo and style of the game, outclassing Greece both technically and physically as they seemed to win every second ball.
A goal fest begins in Zagreb
The visitor’s best chance of the game came after some chaotic defending by Croatia and Greece would certainly have taken the lead but for some smart defending by Vida who cut out a pass destined for Mitroglou. However the ensuing corner did bring a ray of hope for Michael Skibbe’s side as Sokratis connected with a header at the back post, looping the ball back across goal and into the opposite corner. It came very much against the run of play but that mattered not for Greece, who had grabbed a vital away goal and given themselves a respectable score line to try and defend.
Unfortunately for the visitors their defence was once again found wanting just moments after Sokratis’ goal, and a simple pass out wide found Sime Vrsaljko in acres of space and with time to pick out a cross. The fullback floated in a teasing ball right onto the head of the unmarked Ivan Perisic who headed home with ease to restore Croatia’s two-goal cushion.
The flurry of goals seemed to lift the already frantic tempo of the game even further and it was all Greece could do to hold on as the home side pressed for a fourth. Karnezis pulled off a spectacular double save to deny the Croatians on the stroke of half time, but Zlatko Dalic’s still side went into the break with a more than comfortable lead.
The Greek defence is humiliated once again
Croatia came out for the second period looking to put the game out of sight and give Greece an all but impossible task in the second leg, and the Greeks obliged by capitulating defensively once again. Stafylidis attempted a strange chested pass back to Karnezis, which was easily pounced upon by the onrushing Vrsaljko, and the defender subsequently teed up Kramaric for another simple Croatian goal. The home players must have almost felt guilty celebrating such an easy goal, but the defending from the visitors was downright embarrassing and it was all that Croatia deserved for showing an ounce of determination.
Despite their dire situation Greece continued to struggle and the home side again dominated possession and played with frightening confidence. There was little doubt that Vrsaljko was the standout player, and the right back went marauding forwards down the right hand side at every available opportunity as he looked to add to the two assists that he had already registered. Perisic and Kalinic were lively while Modric and Rakitic pulled the strings in midfield, and Croatia began to show the world why they are a team that should never be underestimated.
The Croatians cruise to simple victory
Perisic had a glorious opportunity to grab a fifth goal for the home side after a sensational outside the foot pass from Modric, but the winger blasted his shot over the bar from close range. To their credit Greece finally responded with some attacks of their own, though the quality of their final ball was largely lacking. The visitors did manage to trouble Croatia with their set pieces however and Mitroglou saw his headed effort from a corner fly just over the crossbar.
Even in the final few minutes, and down by three goals, Greece played with no real desire or determination to get back into the game. In the end the home side cruised to a simple victory, and will head into Sunday’s game as the clear favourites to progress from this playoff tie and secure a place in Russia next summer.
This was a hugely convincing and impressive win for Croatia in a game that never really promised an attractive score line. The home side easily broke down what has been a stingy Greece defence, and this performance highlighted the abundance of quality throughout the Croatian squad. A solid defensive performance in Athens on Sunday will send Zlatko Dalic’s side to Russia, and this result has put them in pole position to secure the coveted spot.
Put simply Greece were embarrassing in this game, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Simple runs and passes were not dealt with, unnecessary risks were taken, and worryingly the visitors offered almost nothing going forwards. It will take a gargantuan effort in Athens, as well as a complete turnaround in attacking threat and defensive solidity, for Greece to stand any chance of making it to the World Cup.
Croatia: Subasic, Vida, Strinic, Lovren, Vrsaljko, Rakitic, Brozovic, Kramaric (Vlasic, 83’), Modric (Pasalic, 89’), Perisic, Kalinic (Rebic, 76’)
Greece: Karnezis, Tziolis, Papadopoulos, Papastathoupoulos, Stafylidis (Bakasetas, 72’), Zeca, Tzavellas, Samaris (Tachtsidis, 62’), Fortounis, Maniatis (Retsos, 45’), Mitroglou
Goals: Modric (1-0, 13’), Kalinic (2-0, 19’), Sokratis (2-1, 30’), Perisic (3-1, 33’), Kramaric (4-1, 49’)
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi
Yellow Cards: Karnezis (11’), Zeca (21’), Bakasetas (79’)
Red Cards: None
Croatia: Subasic 7, Vida 7, Strinic 6, Lovren 6, Vrsaljko 9, Rakitic 7, Brozovic 7, Kramaric 8 (Vlasic n/a), Modric 8 (Pasalic n/a), Perisic 8, Kalinic 8 (Rebic n/a)
Greece: Karnezis 5, Tziolis 5, Papadopoulos 6, Papastathoupoulos 5, Stafylidis 5 (Bakasetas 5), Zeca 5, Tzavellas 5, Samaris 5 (Tachtsidis 5), Fortounis 5, Maniatis 5 (Retsos 5), Mitroglou 6
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