Luka Modrić, Nikola Kalinić and Ivan Perišić all scored in a first half blitz, with Sokratis pulling one back for the Greeks, before Andrej Kramarić added the fourth just after half-time.
Greece will have to score at least three times in Sunday’s second leg, with Croatia on course for a fifth World Cup.
Greek defensive pride left in tatters
Both of these times had finished their group campaigns with wins, with Croatia beating Ukraine 2-0 to reach the play-offs ahead of their hosts that evening. They were without Milan Badelj here though, whilst Mario Mandžukić was only fit enough for the bench. Greek captain Vasilis Torosidis was also injured, although Borussia Dortmund defender Sokratis was fit and wore the armband in Torosidis’s absence.
The hosts very quickly took control, but it was a howler that paved the way to the first goal. A poorly-judged back pass from Giorgos Tzavellas caught Watford goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis cold, and after a poor first touch he took out Kalinić to concede a penalty whilst trying to reclaim it. After a delay due to both players needing treatment, Modrić sent Karnezis the wrong way from the spot.
Just a few minutes later they carved open the usually-resilient Greek defence to double their advantage. Ivan Strinić was on the receiving end of a diagonal ball and ran into open space on the Croatian left. Coming into the box, he beat his way past Giannis Maniatis, Torosidis’s replacement, and he found Kalinić who flicked the ball in.
Greece were hardly at the races, but after a rare Kostas Mitroglou effort drifted away from goal, Dejan Lovren failed to deal with the loose ball, allowing Zeca to cross back in and win a corner. Croatia’s defence failed to watch the jump of Sokratis, who headed in after a limp effort to clear it off the line by Marcelo Brozović proved futile.
They weren’t back in the game for long as their defence was breached yet again just minutes after. This time a cross was whipped in from the right by Šime Vrsaljko, and it was perfectly placed for Perišić running in at the far post, with neither Tzavellas nor Maniatis dealing with them.
Kramarić adds fourth but no further damage done
It could have even been four before the break, but Karnezis made back-to-back saves from Kramarić and Kalinić, however the next goal came soon after half-time. Kostas Stafylidis thought that chesting the ball low back to Karnezis was a good idea, however Vrsaljko intercepted it and was able to set it up for an easy tap-in for Kramarić.
For what it was worth at 4-1 down, having offered so very little beforehand, Greece did show a little more positivity after this point. A strike from nowhere by Mitroglou had to be put wide by the previously-unutilised Danijel Subašić. From the following corner, Sokratis eventually headed over, whilst from a corner later on.
Croatia were able to toy with the visitors, although they weren’t attacking with the same abandon as they were in the first half. Kramarić went wide soon after getting the fourth goal, whilst a Perišić effort was cleared off the line by young substitute defender Panagiotis Retsos.
As Croatia began the run down the clock with late changes, Greece had the final big chance of the game to get what would have been another vital away goal. A ball into the box resulted in a header from Mitroglou that was awkward to deal with for Subašić, but he kept it out. Kyriakos Papadopoulos’s ball back across did not lead to another shot though.
Even if they had scored another they would still have had a tough task back in Athens on Sunday, but as it is they have to score three goals without reply to stand any chance of making it to the World Cup next year. Croatia have one foot in Russia already.