NORTHERN IRELAND 0 CORATIA 3
Northern Ireland ended the calendar year on a losing note after falling to a 3-0 defeat to Croatia at the National Stadium at Windsor Park on Tuesday night
At a venue where Michael O’Neill’s men had not lost in their previous 10 fixtures, Croatia’s captain for the night Mario Mandzukic bundled in a ninth-minute opener.
Duje Cop then capitalised on some poor marking from a corner to double the Croatians’ lead prior to the interval.
Andrej Krmaric killed off the contest just after the hour mark.
Niall McGinn was made captain on his 50th Northern Ireland appearance for the friendly against Croatia, with kick-off delayed by 15 minutes in Belfast due to traffic congestion.
West Brom trio Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Chris Brunt were all retained from the team who played on Friday, as were Oliver Norwood and Josh Magennis, while Rochdale’s Matthew Lund came in for his first cap.
The Croatians, who had travelled without the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, handed their skipper’s armband to Mario Mandzukic, while there was also a place for Leicester’s former record-buy Andrej Kramaric.
The decision was made to delay kick-off in Belfast because of traffic problems on the roads leading in to the ground.
The extra time allowed a sell-out crowd to take their seats - although some never made it due to the traffic congestion - at Windsor Park prior to kick-off, where the hosts lined up in the same 4-1-4-1 formation Michael O’Neill had deployed against the Azeris.
It meant Magennis was stationed out on the right wing again and his second-minute cross flashed across the six-yard box before being cleared at the back post.
Liam Boyce, left at home during the Euros, was preferred to Kyle Lafferty and Will Grigg in attack and he nearly stole in when visiting goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic hesitated at a back pass only to clear out for a throw at the last moment.
A bright start continued when Paddy McNair’s shot was deflected wide, but the momentum was ruined in the ninth minute when Mandzukic scored his 29th international goal in a scrappy fashion. It was the first goal Northern Ireland had conceded in 463 minutes at home.
Trailing 2-0 at the break, O’Neill predictably made changes for the second half, introducing Steven Davis, Conor McLaughlin and Ryan McGivern for Matthew Lund, Chris Brunt and Gareth McAuley.
It was a replacement for the Croatians who should have scored next, though.
Clattenburg awarded a free-kick inside the box after Mannus picked up a back-pass and the ball was rolled to Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic, who had scored twice against Iceland on Saturday, yet he shot so far over here the ball clattered into the glass windows of the offices above the crowd.
Crowd favourite Kyle Lafferty came on for Magennis and there was more drive about the hosts as he saw a shot blocked shortly after Evans had headed over a Norwood corner.
But any hopes of a comeback were killed off in the 68th minute through a glorious Kramaric goal.
He arrived in this part of the world with a point to prove after an ill-fated spell with Leicester and showed the quality he possesses by driving into the top corner after McLaughlin lost possession.