Greece hopes in ruins after calamity in Croatia

Getty Images

FIFA World Cup play-off 1st leg: Croatia 4-1 Greece

Croatia seized control of its FIFA World Cup qualifying play-off against Greece as it claimed a commanding 4-1 home victory in the first leg.

Despite being without Mario Mandzukic, who was only fit enough for a seat on the bench because of a hamstring strain, the host cruised to victory on a cold night in Zagreb, putting it within touching distance of a place at the FIFA World Cup finals in Russia next year.

Having had a hand in the first goal, forcing a foul from goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis to win a penalty that was converted by Luka Modric, Nikola Kalinic steered home a second from close range.

Greece briefly responded with a header from Sokratis Papastathopoulos, only to leak a third before the break when Ivan Perisic, who was left alone at the far post, headed home.

Andrej Kramaric's third goal in his last two international appearances early in the second half extended Croatia's advantage even further, leaving its opponent with a mountain to climb ahead of the return fixture on Monday (AEDT).

Greece's issues were all of its own making, with any plan to keep the tie close ahead of the return leg disappearing when it gave away two avoidable goals in the opening 20 minutes.

Karnezis's decision to take a touch with the ball at his feet backfired spectacularly when he presented possession to Kalinic, with the goalkeeper compounding the initial error by carelessly flattening the Croatia forward inside the area.

Modric converted from the spot, sending Karnezis the wrong way, and the home fans were soon celebrating again when an unmarked Kalinic converted Ivan Strinic's low cross from the left wing.

Reeling on the ropes after taking Croatia's one-two on the chin, Greece briefly countered when Sokratis's looping header from a corner cut the deficit in half.

However, having worked so hard to grab an away goal, Michael Skibbe's side conceded again within five minutes, Sime Vrsaljko's deep cross from the right presenting Perisic with the simple task of nodding the ball in.

The gap would have been greater at the break were it not for Karnezis, who went some way to redeeming his earlier error with a fine double save to deny Kramaric and Kalinic in quick succession.

Yet Greece's calamitous defending was not just confined to the first half.

Konstantinos Stafylidis's attempt to chest a deep cross back to his own goalkeeper served up a fourth goal on a plate, the alert Vrsaljko nipping in to square the ball across for the waiting Kramaric to convert.

Sokratis headed over under pressure from Dejan Lovren in a rare moment of concern for Croatia, while Danijel Subasic was required to turn away a 90th-minute header from Konstantinos Mitroglou.

Perisic wastefully blazed over when well placed at the other end as Greece narrowly avoided conceding what surely would have been the knockout blow. As it is, it still requires a remarkable turnaround in the home leg in Athens.