A heavily-rotated Croatia side ended Northern Ireland’s run of 11 internationals at home without defeat by earning a comfortable 3-0 victory in a friendly at Windsor Park on Tuesday.
Ante Cacic made eight changes to his starting line-up from the 2-0 win over Iceland in World Cup qualifying on Saturday – Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic among those left out – as Croatia became the first side to beat Northern Ireland on their own patch since Portugal won 4-2 in Belfast in 2013.
Mario Mandzukic, one of the trio that kept their place in the first XI, bundled home his 29th international goal after just nine minutes, moving him up to joint-second with Eduardo in the country’s all-time scoring list.
That ended a run of five successive home matches without conceding a goal for Michael O’Neill’s side, and they let another slip 10 minutes before half-time.
Duje Cop capitalised on idle defending to open his international account with a volley from inside the six-yard box, securing an advantage Croatia never looked like surrendering to a toothless Northern Ireland.
O’Neill sent Kyle Lafferty on in the 56th minute to try to provide more of a threat up front but it was Andrej Kramaric who rounded off the scoring with an unstoppable effort from 25 yards.
Northern Ireland applied some early pressure with Josh Magennis looking dangerous down the right, but they soon found themselves behind.
Alan Mannus could only push Cop’s shot from the left-hand side of the box straight to Mandzukic, who eventually scrambled the ball over the line when Jonny Evans’ attempted clearance rebounded off his chest.
Marin Leovac headed wide from a Kramaric cross five minutes later before Croatia opted to slow the tempo.
Cacic’s team eventually went in search of a second and, after Mandzukic put his foot through an advertising hoarding following a slight nudge from Evans, they got it 10 minutes before half-time.
Northern Ireland’s defence was static when an unopposed Matej Mitrovic flicked Kramaric’s corner into the six-yard box, where a free Cop stole in to volley home.
There was controversy nine minutes after the restart when Mannus picked up a pass from Evans to concede an indirect free-kick near the penalty spot.
It was quickly teed up for substitute Marcelo Brozovic who found the back of the net, but referee Mark Clattenburg pulled play back for an infringement and the Inter midfielder blasted over at the second attempt.
Lafferty struggled to trouble the Croatia defence upon his introduction and the visitors extended their advantage in the 67th minute.
Kramaric received the ball in space and sent a sensational strike from distance beyond Mannus and into the top-right corner.
Cop fired narrowly wide from a free-kick before Lafferty was denied a consolation for the hosts by substitute Croatia goalkeeper Ivan Vargic with two minutes remaining.