- Croatia dominant in clinching 4-1 play-off win over Greece
- Hosts clinical thanks to ruthlessness down the wings
- Greece face huge task in home leg if they are to reach Russia 2018
With a 4-1 scoreline secured on home soil, Croatia know that navigating through their 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia play-off is at least half done.
Given that their opponents were a Greece side with a defensive reputation, conjuring expectations of a tense and tight affair, a three-goal lead heading to Piraeus is more than many fans would have banked on. But their side played on the front foot with an expansive gameplan executed to perfection, and the scoreline simply represents the fruits of Croatia’s positive approach to the challenge.
“The adventurous formation paid off with [Luka] Modric deployed in a more attacking position and the full-backs overlapping on the flanks to keep up the pressure,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic explained at full-time. “The basic idea was to raid them on both flanks and the strategy worked.”
No arguments there, with three of the hosts’ four goals coming as a direct result of focusing their play out wide. The likes of Ivan Perisic – who tormented right across the front line – and full-backs Ivan Strinic and Sime Vrsaljko proved a nightmare for the visitors to contain. But an early mistake from goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis, gifting Croatia a penalty, also hindered Michael Skibbe’s plans.
“If you help your opponents score the first and the fourth goal then it’s very difficult to be competitive,” Skibbe said, after Kostantinos Staflydis’s ill-judged chest back also laid on the final strike of the night. “Of course, we are very unhappy right now. We will be a better team in the next match.”
Midfield control, defensive chaos
With the dominance and stability of Croatia’s central midfield three of Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Rakitic – the latter spraying countless passes out wide from deep in a fashion reminiscent of the recently-retired Andrea Pirlo – the home side would have been tough to contain for anyone. And with Greece's greatest strength, defensive constancy, deserting them, that difficult task became impossible.
“It was a very difficult night for us. We have never made so many mistakes in one game,” said captain Sokratis Papastathopoulos, whose towering, headed away goal provides Greece’s glimmer of hope for the return leg. “Of course, Croatia has the upper hand now. They have a 90 per cent chance of going through.”
That is a probability that Dalic is intends to not let creep into their minds for the return on Sunday, even if most outside his camp will view them as having one foot in Russia. “We must root out any complacency immediately and head to Greece as if the score was 0-0,” the caretaker boss – who only took charge ahead of their final two Group I games – insisted. “It’s not over. This was the first game.”
While the three-goal deficit for Greece may not quite represent a Herculean task to overcome, succeeding in doing so will be a story that will echo through the ages of Hellenic football.