The World Cup qualifying playoff first-leg between Croatia and Greece took place at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb on Thursday night.
The Croats made their displeasure about playing Greece known, when the draw was made. They did so by citing the fact that going into these playoffs, they had not defeated the Greeks since 1997. Adding to their problems were the injuries to Milan Badelj and Mario Mandžukić.
However, with regards to the first-leg at least these issues did not affect the team of head coach Zlatko Dalić. In fact, it seemed as though they were better with a true striker like Nikola Kalinić, rather than a Mandžukić, who likes to fight for every ball all over the field.
It was Kalinić who had his team’s best opportunity early on and forced the Greek goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis to foul him in the penalty area in a one-on-one duel. Luka Modrić then converted the spot kick that followed, 1-0!
Later, Kalinić scored a nice goal himself and the Greeks, who pride themselves on their defending suddenly conceded twice, before the twenty-minute mark.
But in the 30th minute, the away team suddenly came storming back, as Sokratis Papastathopoulos headed it in a cross from a corner kick.
Croatia knew that the away goal could be a potentially huge setback for them, thus they kept pushing forward and got their reward through a Ivan Perišić header 3-1, only three minutes later.
Early in the second half, Andrej Kramarić added a fourth goal for his team, to make it a 4-1 first-leg final score.
Normally that should be a big enough lead to take to Greece on Sunday. But as every fan of the “Vatreni” must well know, noting is normal about the Croatian national team. The hostile crowd that will await them in the second-leg in Piraeus is also anything but normal.
That is why Sunday’s game is still meaningful.