Northern Ireland 0-3 Croatia: GAWA suffer first home defeat for more than three years at hands of Vatreni
Northern Ireland slipped to their first home defeat for more than three years as a classy Croatia side claimed a comfortable victory.
Not since the visit of Portugal back in September 2013 had Michael O’Neill’s side lost in Belfast.
But goals from Mario Mandzukic, Duje Cop and a brilliant individual effort from man-of-the-match Andrej Kramaric sent them crashing to defeat.
It was a disappointing end to a memorable 2016, which will forever be remembered for the Green and White Army’s invasion of France for the Euros.
But ultimately this largely insignificant loss won’t spoil the memories of a historic year.
With the serious business of World Cup qualification off the agenda until the spring, this friendly defeat was not of huge importance.
Both sides rested key players, with Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty among those left on the bench for Northern Ireland.
Both came on in the second half, but by that stage Northern Ireland were already two down.
Croatia also rested a host of star names, including Luka Modric of Real Madrid and Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic, but still had too much quality.
Despite traffic chaos causing kick-off to be delayed by 15 minutes, some 16,893 fans were still packed into the national stadium.
The away side were in control at half-time, scoring from the two main chances of a lacklustre first half.
The first came in the ninth minute after a goalmouth scramble.
Goalkeeper Alan Mannus parried away an angled drive and, as players pounced on the loose ball, Mandzukic was first to react.
He forced the ball home, past a defender on the line, sparking celebrations among the small but vocal group of away fans.
The second came in the 35th minute as Northern Ireland were caught out at a set piece.
Matej Mitrovic escaped his marker at the near post to flick on a corner for Cop, who had also broken free and headed home.
Northern Ireland had started well and went close inside the opening minutes.
Josh Magennis, who caused problems down the right, collected a pass and drove the ball across goal.
Liam Boyce was coming in but the Croatian defence managed to scramble the ball clear.
Paddy McNair then threatened, drilling a left foot shot from outside the box just wide after a throw was flicked on.
But Croatia soon settled into their rhythm, knocking the ball about with ease.
Northern Ireland brought on Davis, Conor McLaughlin and Ryan McGivern at the start of the second half.
Talisman Lafferty soon followed from the bench.
But Northern Ireland were under pressure again when Mannus was penalised for picking up a back-pass, leading to a free-kick around the penalty spot.
Croatia played it square to Marcelo Brozovic, who fired high into the stands, drawing jeers from the home crowd.
Ex-Leicester striker Kramaric added a classy third in the 68th minute.
There seemed little threat when he picked the ball up, but he drove forward before firing home from 25 yards to seal the win.
Lafferty had a late chance when a corner came to him at the back post, but he fired straight at the goalkeeper, who blocked with his legs.
NORTHERN IRELAND: Mannus, McAuley, J Evans, Hodson, McGinn, Brunt, Boyce, Norwood, McNair, Lund, Magennis
Subs: Carroll, McLaughlin, Davis, Grigg, Lafferty, C Evans, McGivern, Duffy, Paton, Flanagan
CROATIA: Kalinic, Leovac, Mitrovic, Kramaric, Jedvaj, Cop, Rog, Mandzukic, Badelj, Filip, Vida
Subs: Vargic, Vrsaljko, Brozovic, Coric, Pivaric
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (England)
Match preview by Graham Luney
Michael O'Neill will make a few changes to his Northern Ireland starting eleven for the friendly against Croatia tonight (8pm) but it will still be a strong side unleashed on classy opponents.
Lee Hodson, Ryan McGivern, Paddy McNair, Paul Paton, Matthew Lund, Liam Boyce and Niall McGinn may all be hoping for starting roles but the Northern Ireland boss has hinted that there won't be a significant shuffling of his pack.
"It's important we don't put too many players in," said O'Neill.
"Players have to earn caps. The senior players want to add to their own tally. It will have some element of change but won't be as radical as you think."
Aberdeen winger McGinn could be in line for his 50th cap and O'Neill was full of praise for the former Dungannon Swifts starlet.
"Niall's been great, he's probably the one player who suffers from a tactical aspect in our team more than others," he added.
"If we play with three at the back, it's hard for him to find a place in the starting line-up.
"There is competition but the one thing he does is always gives you something, maybe he's given us more off the bench.
"He's unfortunate that we're based in Scotland and he's watched a lot - he's never going to play well every week.
"He's found a little niche, you know you're going to get something from him. He has an ability to get you back in the game."