CROATIA 2 WALES 0
WALES suffered a case of déjà vu in the Balkans as they crashed to defeat to Croatia and all but waved goodbye to any hopes of qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
Goals in each half from Mario Mandzukic and Eduardo da Silva were enough to ease the hosts to victory at the Gradski Stadium in Osijek.
Wales lost 2-0 in a friendly at the same venue in 2010 but the only survivors from that game were Chris Gunter and Ashley Williams.
But Chris Coleman’s men had been to this part of the world more recently than that, of course. Osijek is just 75 miles from their 6-1 humbling by Serbia in Novi Sad last month and they were determined to set the record straight. But, while they avoided another hammering and kept battling to the bitter end, it wasn’t to be.
It may have been ten years to the day since Mark Hughes’ side recorded a famous 2-1 win over Italy but there was to be no miraculous victory for Coleman’s men.
After the unexpected joy of beating Scotland on Friday night the boys in green and white came hurtling down to earth faster than Felix Baumgartner.
They have restored some pride but they surely need a miracle now to get anywhere near Brazil.
Coleman made only one enforced change from the Gareth Bale-inspired win over the Scots with Leicester City’s Andy King replacing the suspended Aaron Ramsey in midfield.
Croatian coach Igor Stimac made three changes from his side’s 2-1 win over Macedonia, the most surprising of which saw Nikica Jelavic drop to the bench to be replaced up front by ex-Arsenal star Eduardo.
Heavy rain during the day had left the pitch resembling Spytty Park at its very worst last season but it didn’t seem to inhibit the Croatians as they dominated the first half from start to finish.
With Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to the fore the hosts had 72 per cent possession in the first 45 minutes and will have counted themselves unlucky to only be a goal to the good at the break.
But there was a large slice of luck involved with the opener, which was typically calamitous from a Welsh point of view.
Williams, who has made a few howlers for Swansea City in the Premier League this season, added another one to his collection.
The skipper’s under hit backpass held up in one of the huge mud patches and Lewis Price’s attempted clearance was blocked by Mandzukic, who had the easiest of tasks to roll it into an empty net on 27 minutes.
It was a gift-wrapped goal but no less than Croatia deserved for all their pressure.
Darcy Blake twice did well to block goalbound efforts from the impressive Rakitic and Modric had a penalty shout turned down before Price made amends for his error with a superb one-handed save from Eduardo in the box.
The passionate home crowd whistled Wales whenever they kept the ball for more than ten seconds, which wasn’t very often, and the only time the visitors threatened before the break was when Bale cut inside from the right flank and fired just wide from distance.
With Joe Allen giving the ball away at will and Joe Ledley and King anonymous it was left to Bale to offer Wales hope. His pace certainly worried the Croats and he twice went close after the game was lost but it was the hosts who continued to pile on the pressure.
Williams did well to block an Ivan Perisic shot right in front of goal on 48 minutes and Gunter had to take a booking for hacking down the same player shortly afterwards as he raced towards Price’s goal.
Williams was again in the right place to head away another effort from Eduardo but it seemed only a matter of time before the hosts killed off the game. And the killer goal duly arrived in the 58th minute as Price saved a point-blank Perisic header only for Eduardo to tap in the rebound from a few yards out.
The former Gunner was a menace all night but Wales lacked any real ammunition.
Stipe Pletikosa made his first real save from a King header with just over 20 minutes remaining and New-port’s Simon Church failed to make much of an impact after replacing the ineffective Steve Morison.
It was almost 3-0 as Eduardo hit the woodwork with a header and Mand-zukic’s follow-up was somehow kept out by a combination of Price, Blake and Williams, but this was the most comfortable of 2-0 wins for the hosts.
Croatia: Pletikosa, Strinic, Simunic, Lovren (Schildenfeld, 46), Rakitic, Modric, Srna, Badelj, Mandzukic, Perisic (Vida, 86), Da Silva (Kranjcar, 78)
Subs not used: Kresic, Subasic, Corluka, Pamic, Vukusic, Jelavic, Kalinic, Cruz Campos, Radosevic
Booked: Lovren, Strinic
Wales: Price, Gunter, B.Davies, Blake, A.Williams, Vaughan, Allen, Ledley (Robson-Kanu, 82), King (Vokes, 73), Bale, Morison (Church, 61)
Subs not used: Brown, C.Davies, Ricketts, Edwards, Richards, Wilson, O.Williams, Nyatanga, Matthews
Referee: Alexandru Dan Tudor (Romania)
Argus star man: Darcy Blake