Defensive Nightmare Crushes Greece’s World Cup dreams
FIFA WORLD CUP QUALIFYING PLAYOFF - LEG 1
|Croatia||4 - 1||Greece|
|Modric (P) 13'
Greece’s hopes of reaching the 2018 World Cup were virtually ended on Thursday as Croatia put Michael Skibbe’s underperforming team to the sword in Zagreb, building a strong 4-1 lead in the first leg of their World Cup play-off tie.
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A Lucas Modric penalty awarded after a woeful mistake by Greece goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis, followed by goals from Nikola Kalinic, Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric helped the impressive home side to a comfortable win.
Sokratis Papastathopoulos scored a consolation goal for a poor Greece team, who were in an uncharacteristic self-destruct mood, giving a mistake-laden display in which few players came away with any credit.
Greece failed to close down their energetic opponents, especially in wide areas, and Croatia fully deserved what was a superb win. It all means that the Greeks now face an impossible task of overturning a 4-1 deficit at the Georgios Karaiskakis stadium in Athens on Sunday for the second leg.
Without injured captain Vasilis Torosidis and the suspended central defender Kostas Manolas, Skibbe picked a very conservative and defensive team, including some of the more experienced heads such as Giannis Maniatis and Alexandros Tzolis as the German looked to get a goalless or low scoring draw.
But his plan backfired just 13 minutes in when Karnezis failed to control a back pass, allowing Kalinic to clip the ball away from the visiting keeper who proceeded to bring down the Croatia forward with a reckless tackle.
That left the referee with no option but to point to the spot, and Real Madrid maestro Modric duly stepped up to send Karnezis the wrong way and slot the ball home from 12 yards.
There was clear relief among the home fans with that early goal, and another quickly followed six minutes later with a great move fashioned down the left flank. Left-back Ivan Strinić stormed down the left flank and sent in a dangerous, low cross which Kalinić met unmarked at the near post.
The Milan forward produced an impudent flick of his right boot to divert the ball across Karnezis and into the far corner.
It was a strike which signalled Croatia's confidence level after making such a bright start to the game, penning Greece back in their own half for long spells.
The visitors’ best moment of the night came next though, with Papastathopoulos pulling a goal back on the half-hour mark to make it 2-1 with a header from Kostas Fortounis’ corner, and at that point it seemed a comeback could be on the cards.
But that feeling was short-lived when Perišić headed home just three minutes later to restore the two-goal lead, and sink Greece’s morale in the process.
There was no way back in the match after that, with Croatia again dominating possession while Greece chased shadows and failed to hold on to the ball and create much of a goal threat when they did break forward.
Croatia’s fourth goal came in the 47th minute from another mistake by a visiting player, this time Kostas Stafylidis was the guilty party. The midfielder attempted to chest the ball back to his goalkeeper but the contact was weak and fell into the path of Sime Vrsaljko, who teed up Kramarić to net from close range with Karnezis helpless to do anything.
Croatia had further chances to extend their lead, but Greece managed to keep the damage at 4-1, not that this helps their chances much in a second leg which they will need to win 3-0 to go through.
One feels that the Croatians, who are now unbeaten in 12 successive competitive home games (W9 D3), will already be celebrating progress to Russia 2018 tonight.