Northern Ireland round off memorable year on low note as Croatia ease to victory
Northern Ireland rounded off their incredible 2016 on a losing note as a depleted Croatia became the first visiting side to win at Windsor Park in three years.
Since Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in a 4-2 win for Portugal, Michael O'Neill's men had recorded eight wins and two draws in their previous 10 fixtures in Belfast, but they were undone by a Croatian team missing Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Dejan Lovren among others.
Mario Mandzukic, the most high profile player in the visitors' ranks, opened the scoring by bundling home early on before Duje Cop finished from a corner and ex-Leicester striker Andrej Kramaric fired into the top corner in a 3-0 success.
It represented the heaviest defeat since a 6-0 loss to Holland in June 2012, though it did little to detract from a calendar year that saw Northern Ireland feature at a finals for the first time in three decades, having also pieced together a record-breaking 12-match unbeaten run en route to Euro 2016 in France.
Traffic problems delayed kick-off by 15 minutes and when fans eventually arrived at Windsor Park they saw a much-changed home side that only retained West Brom trio Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt and Gareth McAuley, and Oliver Norwood and Josh Magennis.
There was a debut for Rochdale's Matthew Lund and just a ninth cap for goalkeeper Alan Mannus, though O'Neill's new-look team started brightly with Magennis' inviting cross causing problems across the six-yard box.
But a bright start was soon ruined by a ninth-minute opener, the first goal Northern Ireland had conceded here in 463 minutes.
It came in scrappy fashion too once Mannus had denied Cop, with both McAuley and Evans favourites to clear, only for Mandzukic to somehow poke the ball over the line when Evans attempted to hack clear.
It was Mandzukic's 29th international goal, a number that drew him level with former Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva, and only Davor Suker, who was in Belfast, is now ahead of him in the all-time standings.
The fixture soon settled into a pace more befitting an international friendly and nothing of note occurred before Cop doubled the advantage in the 34th minute.
A corner from Kramaric, the former record signing for Leicester who scored just four times in the midlands, was nodded on by Matej Mitrovic and Cop lost Magennis to finish in front of The Kop.
It was in that stand of the ground where security moved in to remove a cluster of fans before half-time.
Croatia had staged their previous two World Cup qualifiers behind closed doors, and referee Mark Clattenburg, the man in the middle here, was in charge at the Euros when their game with the Czech Republic was stopped as flares thrown from the Croatian section landed on the pitch.
A banner was unfurled here which read 'Never Forget Vukovar', a reference to a massacre that occurred during the Croatian War of Independence in 1991, but thankfully no serious incidents of trouble were evident in the stands.
A trio of half-time changes duly arrived from O'Neill, who was fortunate Croatian replacement Marcelo Brozovic was still finding his range when ballooning into the office windows at the back of the stand from a free-kick inside the box.
Kramaric had no such troubles when he picked up possession 30 yards from goal in the 68th minute, though, as he arrowed into the top corner with the type of strike Leicester fans were never treated to in his ill-fated Foxes spell.
It was to finish 3-0, with substitute Kyle Lafferty twice denied a consolation, though with a fine year behind them and the prospects of more history to be achieved in Russia in two years' time, this night will be quickly forgotten by The Green and White Army.