herald

Thursday 8 December 2016

Northern winning streak over: Northern Ireland 0 Croatia 3

Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic celebrates with Duje Cop
Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic celebrates with Duje Cop

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.

Since Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in a 4-2 win for Portugal, 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 ex-Leicester striker Andrej Kramaric fired into the top corner in a 3-0 success.

It represented the heaviest defeat since a 6-0 loss to Holland in June 2012, though it did little to detract from a calendar year that saw the North feature at a finals for the first time in three decades, having also pieced together a record-breaking 12-match unbeaten run en route to Euro 2016.

Traffic delayed kick-off by 15 minutes and when fans eventually arrived at Windsor Park they saw a much-changed home side that only retained West Brom trio Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt and Gareth McAuley, and Oliver Norwood and Josh Magennis.

There was a debut for Rochdale's Matthew Lund and a ninth cap for goalkeeper Alan Mannus, though O'Neill's new-look team started brightly with Magennis' inviting cross causing problems.

But a bright start was soon ruined by a ninth-minute opener, the first goal Northern Ireland had conceded here in 463 minutes.

It came in scrappy fashion too once Mannus had denied Cop, with both McAuley and Evans favourites to clear, only for Mandzukic to somehow poke the ball over the line when Evans attempted to hack clear.

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