ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatia fired on all cylinders when they needed to most under new coach Zlatko Dalic as a 4-1 home rout of Greece on Thursday vindicated his hasty appointment after their World Cup qualifying campaign had threatened to collapse.
The result of the first leg left Greece with an almost impossible task to overhaul the deficit in Sunday’s return leg, after Dalic’s adventurous formation tore them apart at Maksimir stadium.
The 51-year-old Bosnian-born Dalic stepped in for the unpopular and uncharismatic Ante Cacic after the Croatians slipped from first to third in their group and oversaw a 2-0 win over Ukraine which lifted them into the playoffs.
His revamped side, freed from Cacic’s cagey tactics, produced what Croatian players, pundits and fans billed as one of their best performances in the last few years.
“What has changed? The coach,” goalkeeper Danijel Subasic said after inspired performances from the squad’s usual suspects as well as by some trump cards deployed by Dalic.
“He talked to us more than his predecessor and brought the best in us. This is the real Croatia and if we repeat this performance in the second leg, we’re off to Russia.”
Left back Ivan Strinic, who only featured in the opening 1-1 home draw with Turkey, delivered a classy performance as did right back Sime Vrsaljko and both racked up assists as Croatia raided the flanks almost at will.
With Ivan Perisic, captain Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic at their usual high level, stand-in striker Nikola Kalinic, who replaced injured battering ram Mario Mandzukic, also stood out with a goal after winning a penalty converted by Modric.
Kalinic’s strike partner Andrej Kramaric, constantly overlooked by Cacic, continued his second lease of life with another goal after netting both against Ukraine.
The 26-year old Kramaric acknowledged the Croatians needed to keep their feet firmly on the ground.
“We have probably done enough as I doubt they can put four or five past us in the return leg, but it’s not over yet and we need to score the away goal to make sure,” he said.
Dalic also kept his feet firmly on the ground.
“I will not get carried away because that amounts to skating on thin ice,” he said.
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic, editing by Ed Osmond