Switzerland and Croatia grab WC play-off leads

Switzerland and Croatia are in the driving seat to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after winning their first-leg ties in the European play-offs.

Northern Ireland 0-1 Switzerland

Switzerland hold a slender advantage going into the second leg on home soil after beating Northern Ireland 1-0 at Windsor Park on Thursday.

The visitors bossed proceedings in Belfast, but they had to wait until the second half to make the breakthrough with Ricardo Rodriguez scoring from the penalty spot.

Michael O’Neill’s side couldn’t muster a response as they suffered a third defeat in a row to leave their World Cup hopes hanging by a thread.

There was a real lack of quality on display in the first half as the Swiss struggled to break down the hosts, who defended resolutely.

The only real chance before the break saw Haris Seferovic connect with Xherdan Shaqiri’s ball over the top, but his first-time effort was expertly saved by Michael McGovern on 18 minutes.

Switzerland almost opened the scoring immediately after the restart when Shaqiri collected a cross from Rodriguez and cut onto his left foot before bending a shot that kissed the top of the crossbar.

However, they were awarded a controversial penalty on 57 minutes for a handball by Corry Evans after Shaqiri’s powerful effort struck him on the shoulder at close quarters. The decision appeared to be harsh on the hosts, who were further punished as Rodriguez scored from 12 yards out.

McGovern was called into action again five minutes later with another good save to keep out Seferovic’s deflected shot.

But there would be no late drama as Vladimir Petkovic’s men secured victory and a valuable away goal ahead of the return fixture in Basel on Sunday.

Croatia 4-1 Greece

Croatia are in a commanding position in their play-off clash after cruising to a 4-1 first-leg win over Greece at the Maksimir Stadium.

Four of the five goals came in the first half, with the hosts two-up inside the opening 20 minutes before Greece halved the deficit on the half-hour mark.

However, a further two goals either side of the break from Zlatko Dalic’s side saw them take a massive advantage into the second leg in Piraeus on Sunday.

Croatia were on the front foot as early as the 13th minute when visiting keeper Orestis Karnezis brought down Nikola Kalinic inside the area for a penalty that was converted by Luka Modric.

Clever play from Kalinic saw the Croatians double their lead six minutes later as he turned in Ivan Strinic’s low cross with his heel.

Sokratis Papastathopoulos gave the visitors hope when he pulled one back with a header from a corner on 30 minutes, but Ivan Perisic restored the two-goal cushion just three minutes later as he headed home Sime Vrsaljko’s cross at the back post.

Andrej Kramaric wrapped up the scoring four minutes into the second half following a mistake from the Greeks, which allowed the striker to pounce from close range.

Kostas Mitroglou nearly reduced the deficit at the death, but he was unable to beat Danijel Subasic, who parried the ball away and Kyriakos Papadopoulos missed the target on the rebound.

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