• Croatia and Switzerland claim important wins on Thursday
  • Croats prove too strong for Greece in the first leg in Zagreb
  • Ricardo Rodriguez’s penalty gives the Swiss victory in Northern Ireland

Croatia and Switzerland stepped closer towards earning qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ after first-leg victories in their two-leg European zone play-off ties on Thursday evening. Croatia eased to a comfortable 4-1 victory at home to Greece, while Switzerland scored a second-half penalty to earn a valuable 1-0 win in Northern Ireland.

The performance of the evening came at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, as Croatia scored three times in the first half to ease past Greece. Captain Luka Modric opened the scoring from the penalty spot on 13 minutes before Nikola Kalinic doubled the home side’s advantage with a neat finish six minutes later.

The Greeks replied on the half-hour mark with a header from captain Sokratis Papastathopoulos, but Ivan Perisic made sure the Croats had a two-goal lead at the break after heading home Sime Vrsaljko's fine cross three minutes later. Andrej Kramaric then found the scoresheet shortly after the break to ensure Croatia take a comfortable lead to the decisive away leg in Piraeus on Sunday.

Thursday’s other contest saw Switzerland win a tightly-contested opening leg affair against Northern Ireland in Belfast. A goalless first half saw the visitors create the best opportunities, with Haris Seferovic forcing a good save from Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern.

The decisive moment of the match came just before the hour mark, as Switzerland were awarded a penalty after Corry Evans was adjudged to have handled the ball in the Northern Ireland penalty area. Ricardo Rodriguez stepped up to convert the spot-kick for his third goal in Russia 2018 qualifying and the visitors’ first-ever win at Windsor Park.

Both sides now turn their attentions to the decisive second leg in Basel on Sunday, with Northern Ireland needing to overcome a one-goal aggregate deficit away from home.

The stat
100 - Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis reached his 100th cap for the national team in his side's 1-0 defeat by Switzerland in Belfast. Davis made his international debut on 9 February 2005 in a 1-0 defeat to Canada.