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Niall McGinn skippers Northern Ireland on 50th cap in friendly against Croatia

Niall McGinn was made captain on his 50th Northern Ireland appearance for the friendly against Croatia, with kick-off delayed by 15 minutes in Belfast due to traffic congestion.

West Brom trio Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt were all retained from the team who played on Friday, as were Oliver Norwood and Josh Magennis, while Rochdale's Matthew Lund came in for his first cap.

The Croatians, who had travelled without the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, handed their skipper's armband to Mario Mandzukic, while there was also a place for Leicester's former record-buy Andrej Kramaric.

The decision was made to delay kick-off in Belfast because of traffic problems on the roads leading in to the ground.

The extra time allowed a sell-out crowd to take their seats at Windsor Park prior to kick-off, where the hosts lined up in the same 4-1-4-1 formation Michael O'Neill had deployed against the Azeris.

It meant Magennis was stationed out on the right wing again and his second-minute cross flashed across the six-yard box before being cleared at the back post.

Liam Boyce, left at home during the Euros, was preferred to Kyle Lafferty and Will Grigg in attack and he nearly stole in when visiting goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic hesitated at a back pass only to clear out for a throw at the last moment.

A bright start continued when Paddy McNair's shot was deflected wide, but the momentum was ruined in the ninth minute when Mandzukic scored his 29th international goal in a scrappy fashion.

Kramaric fed Duje Cop down the right and when his shot was well kept out by Mannus, Mandzukic found a way to get the ball over the line despite Jonny Evans attempting to hack clear.

It brought the striker level with ex-Arsenal forward Eduardo da Silva in second place in Croatia's all-time scorer list, and it was the first goal O'Neill's side had conceded in 463 minutes at home.

The goal knocked the wind out of the Northern Irish sails and allowed Croatia to slow the pace.

With no chances for either side forthcoming, the biggest cheer came when a committed Mandzukic slid into an advertising hoard behind the goal.

Thankfully for the Juventus hierarchy, he avoided injury and his two attacking partners then played a part in the second goal.

It was another O'Neill would have been wincing at, as this one stemmed for a corner, which Kramaric delivered to be flicked on by Matej Mitrovic before an untracked Cop finished in front of The Kop.

Croatia's first two World Cup qualifiers had been staged behind closed doors due to crowd trouble at the start of the year, while Mark Clattenburg, the referee here, had also been in charge for their Euro 2016 game with the Czech Republic when play was stopped due to flares coming on the pitch.

Pockets of Croatia fans appeared to pop up in The Kop towards the end of the first half, with some unfurling a banner which read 'Never Forget Vukovar', a reference to a massacre that occurred during the Croatia War of Independence in 1991.

INTRO: Northern Ireland looked set to end the calendar year on a losing note after falling 2-0 behind to Croatia at Windsor Park.

At a venue where Michael O'Neill's men had not lost in their previous 10 fixtures, Croatia's captain for the night Mario Mandzukic bundled in a ninth-minute opener.

Duje Cop then capitalised on some poor marking from a corner to double the Croatians' lead prior to the interval.

O'Neill predictably made changes at half-time, introducing Steven Davis, Conor McLaughlin and Ryan McGivern for Matthew Lund, Chris Brunt and Gareth McAuley.

It was a replacement for the Croatians who should have scored next, though.

Clattenburg awarded a free-kick inside the box after Mannus picked up a back-pass and the ball was rolled to Inter Milan's Marcelo Brozovic, who had scored twice against Iceland on Saturday, yet he shot so far over here the ball clattered into the glass windows of the offices above the crowd.

Crowd favourite Kyle Lafferty came on for Magennis and there was more drive about the hosts as he saw a shot blocked shortly after Evans had headed over a Norwood corner.

But any hopes of a comeback were killed off in the 68th minute through a glorious Kramaric goal.

He arrived in this part of the world with a point to prove after an ill-fated spell with Leicester and showed the quality he possesses by driving into the top corner after McLaughlin lost possession.

O'Neill then decided to give Grigg a run out for the final 20 minutes in tandem with Lafferty.

The latter, who came into this game having scored five times in the limited time he had featured in this season, had a chance to reduce the deficit but could not lift a lob over Kalinic.

That would have at least lifted the subdued atmosphere around Windsor Park, where fans have become accustomed to not ending up on the losing side in recent years.

Not since a 6-0 reverse to Holland had O'Neill's men found themselves on the wrong end of such a convincing scoreline, and it almost got worse when Cop dropped a free-kick just past Mannus' post.

Lafferty was denied a late goal when shooting at the near post by substitute goalkeeper Ivan Vargic, who, along with the other four Croatian replacements that travelled all got on.

And getting a look at his own fringe players will have been perhaps the only positive O'Neill could take in Belfast, where more important matters will be decided in the next game against Norway in March.

INTRO: 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.

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 former Leicester striker Andrej Kramaric fired into the top corner in a 3-0 success.


From Belfast Telegraph