Croatia in the driver's seat
ZAGREB, Croatia (AP):
Croatia took a decisive step towards World Cup qualification yesterday, overwhelming Greece for a 4-1 victory in the first leg of their playoff.
Captain Luka Modric, whose recent form for Real Madrid had been criticised in Spain, opened the scoring from the penalty spot in the 13th minute - before leaping into the air in celebration.
Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi awarded the penalty after Greece goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis failed to control the ball and fouled Nikola Kalinic with a poorly judged clearance.
Kalinic added another goal six minutes later, flicking in a cross from Ivan Strinic with the side of his foot.
Greece struggled to regain composure and rarely attacked, but Sokratis Papastathopoulos briefly silenced the home crowd, sending a header over keeper Danijel Subasic and into the net.
However, relief for the visitors was short-lived. Ivan Perisic headed in a cross from Sime Vrsaljko in the 33nd minute as the Croats dominated both wings.
The fourth goal came four minutes after the break from Andrej Kramaric, swooping in after another Greek error, by Kostas Stafylidis.
As fans and players celebrated at Zagreb's Maksimir Stadium, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic highlighted the second leg on Sunday.
"We had a tremendous game. I've thanked the players and the fans who made us feel like we had an extra man on the pitch," Dalic said. "But it's not over. This was the first game.
"Our aim tonight was to pressure Greece down the wings, and that worked. We had a lapse in concentration and conceded a goal, but I can't really complain."
In another match yesterday, Switzerland clipped Northern Ireland 1-0 with a controversial penalty.
Northern Ireland defender Jonny Evans thinks the contentious penalty awarded for handball was "a worse decision" than the Thierry Henry handball that deprived neighbouring Republic of Ireland a spot at the 2010 World Cup.
A volley by Xherdan Shaqiri struck the shoulder of Evans' brother Corey as the Northern Ireland midfielder attempted to block the shot. Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan pointed to the spot, sparking angry protests from the Northern Ireland players.
Ricardo Rodriguez duly converted in the 58th minute for an away goal that put Switzerland in good position going into the return leg of qualifying for its fourth consecutive World Cup.