ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatia edged 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.
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.
“We must root out any complacency immediately and head to Greece as if the score was 0-0,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic told Croatian broadcaster HRT.
“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, shone as he won a penalty for Croatia’s opening goal scored by captain Luka Modric and netted the second to give the home side a 2-0 lead at Maksimir stadium.
Sokratis Papastathopoulos pulled one back for Greece before Ivan Perisic made it 3-1 with a thumping close-range header in an action-packed first half.
Andrej Kramaric scored Croatia’s fourth shortly after the break, poking the ball in from two metres after Sime 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, who were 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 superb save to keep out a Mitroglou header in the 89th minute to make sure his side headed to Athens with a three-goal advantage.
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade,; Editing by Ed Osmond