Northern Ireland 0-3 Croatia: Hosts' long unbeaten run at Windsor Park ended
By Richard Morgan
Last Updated: 16/11/16 12:11pm
Croatia beat Northern Ireland 3-0 in a friendly international on Tuesday night to end the home team's three-year unbeaten run at Windsor Park.
The visitors took an early lead thanks to Mario Mandzukic's bundled effort, his fifth strike in his last four games for his country, before Duje Cop's close-range strike doubled their advantage 10 minutes before half-time.
And Croatia ensured that their first-ever visit to Belfast would be a winning one when Andrej Kramaric scored a sublime long-range effort midway through the second half.
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill rung the changes after Friday night's 4-0 win against Azerbaijan in World Cup qualifying as he looked to make full use of his squad.
And that meant starts for the likes of Lee Hodson, Paddy McNair, Matthew Lund, Liam Boyce and Niall McGinn, while 39-year-old goalkeeper Roy Carroll also earned a place on the bench following an injury to first-choice Michael McGovern.
The visitors, meanwhile, were without Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, with the Real Madrid and Barcelona midfield duo joining Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Perisic, Vedran Corluka, Danijel Subasic and Nikola Kalinic in being left behind in Croatia.
However, manager Ante Cacic did take the opportunity to look at others players - including former Leicester City striker Kramaric - a number of who no doubt caught his eye, especially in the first half.
As after a promising start to proceedings by the hosts, it was Cacic's side who slowly grew into the contest, helped no doubt by Mandzukic's early strike after a lovely flowing move involving the Juventus striker and Cop.
And when the on-loan Sporting Gijon forward whipped in a low cross from the left, there was his captain to score his 29th goal for his country in just 74 internationals, although there was an element of fortune to the goal as Jonny Evan's attempted clearance rebounded into the net off the prone Mandzukic.
Not that Croatia cared about how they went in front, and there was no luck about their second goal after 35 minutes, coming as it did after a well-worked corner routine.
Kramaric, now enjoying a new lease of life at Hoffenheim, swung a corner from the right straight on to Matej Mitrovic's head at the near post, with the centre-back's flick on being tapped in from a few yards out by Cop for his first-ever goal for his country.
That strike appeared to knock the stuffing out of Northern Ireland, with O'Neill reacting by bringing on Steven Davis, Conor McLaughlin and Ryan McGivern at the break.
However, as hard as they tried to create some meaningful openings in the second half, the closest they actually came to scoring was when another substitute, Kyle Lafferty, tested replacement 'keeper Ivan Vargic with a rare shot on target in the 88th minute.
But that stage, though, Croatia were already out of sight thanks to Kramaric's 67th-minute effort as the 25-year-old beat Alan Mannus with a beautifully struck strike from 25 yards out.
And that was enough to condemn O'Neill's men to a first defeat at Windsor Park since losing 4-2 to Portugal in September 2013 12 games ago.