Croatia scored twice in the second half to beat Malta 2-0 in the first match from Group H of the EURO 2016 qualifiers at the Stadion Maksimir in Zagreb.
As expected, the Croats held the initiative throughout the ninety minutes, keeping the Maltese under constant pressure. Malta adopted a 3-5-2 formation and controlled their opponents well during the first half despite having a player sent off on the half-hour. However a goal early in the second half and another late in the game handed Croatia the three points.
Jonathan Caruana did not recover in time and therefore Malta coach Pietro Ghedin had to make one change from the team which lost narrowly to Slovakia, including Zach Muscat in the starting line-up. Muscat therefore joined Andrei Agius and Ryan Camilleri in defence. Steve Borg and Clayton Failla played on the flanks, Ryan Fenech, Rowen Muscat and Paul Fenech in midfield with Andre Schembri supporting Michael Mifsud in attack.
The hosts, on the other hand, were in full strength including Real Madrid’s Luka Modrić, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitić, Inter’s Mateo Kovačić and Atletico Madrid’s Mario Mandžukić.
Malta had he first attempt at goal with Andre Schembri testing Subašić with a shot from close range following a throw in by Steve Borg from the right. Croatia replied with a cross shot by Darijo Srna from the right which was blocked by Hogg. On the 16th, Mario Mandžukić hit just wide off an inviting freekick by Rakitić from the right
On the half hour, Malta suffered a major setback as Steve Borg was sent off for retaliation on Mario Mandžukić. Ghedin pulled out Mifsud, replacing him with Balzan defender Steve Bezzina.
Two minutes from the end of the first half, Mandžukić went close to putting Croatia ahead heading the ball just over the bar following a corner from the right.
Hardly thirty seconds had passed in the second half that Croatia managed to take the lead thanks to a low shot from outside the area by Luka Modrić which beat Hogg in the bottom left corner.
On the 54th, Marcelo Brozović tried his luck with a another low shot from the edge of the area but his conclusion ended just wide. Agius then came to the rescue blocking into a corner a goal-bound effort by Modrić following a corner by Rakitić on 66 minutes. Three minutes later, Ryan Camilleri cleared into a corner an inviting pass by Jelavić for Mandžukić.
Substitute Andrej Kramarić was unlucky to hit the crossbar with a fine shot from the edge of the area with the ball cleared into safety by a defender.
However Croatia doubled he score on 81 minutes thanks to Andrej Kramarić who received a perfect pass by Jelavić and hit the ball low past Andrew Hogg.
Marcelo Brozović could have made it 3-0 three minutes later when he rifled a powerful first-timer following a corner from the right but Hogg neutralised his attempt. Hogg came to the rescue once again on the 88th when he tipped into a corner a fine header by Mandžukić. Finally in added time, a powerful shot by Brozović from the right was deflected by Hogg onto the bar and into a corner.
CROATIA Danijel Subašić, Hrvoje Milić, Vedran Ćorluka, Dejan Lovren, Ivan Rakitić, Alen Halilović (67′ Andrej Kramarić), Luka Modrić, Darijo Srna, Marcelo Brozović, Mario Mandžukić (79′ Ivica Olić), Mateo Kovačić (46′ Nikica Jelavić).
MALTA Andrew Hogg, Steve Borg, Andrei Agius, Ryan Fenech, Clayton Failla, Paul Fenech (87′ Ryan Scicluna), Michael Mifsud (33′ Steve Bezzina), Andre Schembri, Rowen Muscat (76′ Bjorn Kristensen), Ryan Camilleri, Zach Muscat.
Referee: Vladislav Bezborodov (RUS)
Assistant Referees: Nikolai Golubev, Maksim Gavrilin (RUS)
Additional Assistsnt Referees: Sergey Ivanov, Mikhail Vilkov (RUS)
Fourth Official: Valeriy Danchenko (RUS)
Yellow Cards: Mandžukić, R. Fenech
Red Cards: S. Borg