Greece will need a miracle on Sunday to overturn the 4-1 deficit from the first leg at the Maksimir Stadion in Zagreb on Thursday, as Croatia was a class above the error-prone Greeks on the night. The dream of a third consecutive World Cup now appears distant for the national team.
Greece coach Michael Skibbe fielded in Croatia a 3-6-1 formation that the national team had not tried before at this level, leaving large sections of its flanks exposed. He switched to a back-four defensive formation after 2-0.
The Croat wingers often toyed with the Greek midfield and defense and created too much trouble to a Greek side that had placed excessive emphasis on its central axis.
The negative signs were obvious from the start of the game, as the Greek team was unable to cross the halfway line for the first 10 minutes.
The Greek nerves became more obvious on the 11th when Orestis Karnezis misjudged the course of the ball in the area and upended Nikola Kalinic to concede a penalty that Luka Modric converted.
It was not long before the Croats doubled their lead, as Ivan Strinic sprinted down the left, overcame the resistance of Yiannis Maniatis and crossed the ball toward the six-yard box where Kalinic back-flicked the ball into the net on the 19th minute.
Greece had to wait 29 minutes for its first chance, but a minute later it got to reduce the deficit: Costas Fortounis took a corner kick from the left and Sokratis Papastathopoulos powered a header into the host’s goal for 2-1.
However the relief only lasted for four minutes, as on the 34th Sime Vrsaljko spread from the right, the Greek defense appeared absent, and incoming Perisic nodded the ball home from close range, in a play that stood out for its speed and precision.
As if conceding three goals in the first half had not been enough, Costas Stafylidis committed yet another error in the Greek defense on the 49th minute, as he tried to chest the ball back to Karnezis. Vrsaljko intervened and squared it to Andrej Kramaric who tapped it in for 4-1.
The hosts missed more chances to add to their tally in the second half, while Costas Mitroglou and Papastathopoulos also had their chances for Greece’s second goal, but could not find the target.
The second leg is taking place on Sunday night at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium.