Croatia 2-1 Wales: Wales suffer first defeat in European qualifiers
Ivan Perisic made the difference as Croatia edged out Wales 2-1 in the European Qualifiers.
The Inter winger caused Wales some real problems from the off and saw his cross turned home by Jamie Lawrence in the 17th minute to put the hosts ahead in Osijek.
Perisic added a much-deserved second just minutes after the break, but David Brooks ensured a nervy finish at a sold-out Stadion Gradski vrt as his curling effort was deflected home in the 76th minute.
But, despite late pressure, Wales could not force the draw as Croatia went top of Group E with six points and Ryan Giggs' side dropped into third place.
How Croatia went top of Group E
In the intense, 30-degree sunshine, Perisic had his first of many chances inside nine minutes, but his strike soared over Wayne Hennessey's goal.
Harry Wilson had a superb chance to give Wales the lead soon afterwards following a monstrous long throw from Gareth Bale, but his volley went straight at Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.
Croatia looked dangerous on the break and it paid off when they went ahead in the 17th minute. Luka Modric played a fine ball forward for Perisic, who put in another dangerous cross and unfortunately for Wales, Lawrence came driving in to send it into his own goal.
There was some controversy in the build-up, as Wilson appeared to be fouled at the top of the opposition area, but nothing was given.
Wales finished the half strongly and should have equalised in the 43rd minute. Daniel James - who had a quiet game after his move to Manchester United was announced on Friday - curled a wonderful cross into the area, picking out Wilson on the far side.
He, in turn, tapped the ball back for Will Vaulks, whose fierce strike was spilt by Livakovic. Ben Davies was lurking by the goalmouth, but the Croatia goalkeeper managed to get the ball in his hands at the second time of asking.
But Croatia steamrolled their opponents at the start of the second half. 20-year-old Josip Brekalo impressed for the hosts and his effort was pushed away by the feet of Hennessey inside two minutes before Mateo Kovacic's goal from the rebound was ruled out for offside.
A minute later, Croatia went ahead as Perisic got his goal after some disorientated Wales defending. Modric initially picked out Andrej Kramaric in the area, but Joe Allen clipped his heels as the loose ball bounced off Chris Mepham's back. Modric was waiting again to lay it off for the waiting Perisic, who was allowed plenty of space to fire home after a sliding block from Connor Roberts left him on the floor.
Bale had a few efforts as the game wore on, but could only find the palms of Livakovic, before Brooks scored his first international goal in the 76th minute.
It was a wonderful strike, paired with a slice of luck, as his curling effort glanced off the head of Domagoj Vida on its way through, although the ball was already heading goalwards.
This opened the game up in the final 20 minutes or so, with Wales having their chances to take a point, but they could not make another breakthrough as they slid to their first defeat of the European Qualifying campaign.
Man of the match - Ivan Perisic
Croatia would not have won this game without Perisic. From the first whistle, he terrorised Roberts down the left-hand side, with the 23-year-old simply not strong enough to deal with him.
There were wonderful crosses from the Inter winger and his understanding with Modric was almost telepathic. As already mentioned, he was involved in both goals for the hosts and since the start of 2018, he has scored more goals for Croatia (6) than any other player.
With former talisman Mario Mandzukic retiring last August, Perisic will surely become Croatia's attacking focal point and he showed today that he has the ability to take that on.
How did Daniel James do?
All eyes were on new Manchester United signing Daniel James - provided the deal goes through as planned on Tuesday - but the 21-year-old had a quiet afternoon as Croatia dominated possession.
Giggs: The result that got away
Wales manager Ryan Giggs told Sky Sports News: "We created the better chances and that's with us not playing well. We showed them too much respect, gave two poor goals away and when you do that against quality opposition, you're not going to win many games.
"We need to play better but there were also some positives. The chances that we did get, creating against a good team like this, and in the last 20 minutes there was only one team who was pushing and who looked fitter. We're disappointed because we feel that one got away there.
"Everyone has lost in this group so far so that's how competitive it is. This was arguably going to be the toughest team we faced because they're the best team in the group with the quality they've got and we nearly got something out of the game.
"We take the positives, but we've also got to play better, defend better and we can't give stupid goals away because if we do, then we won't win on Tuesday [against Hungary] either."
It is an international friendly for Croatia next week as they host Tunisia in Varazdin. Wales are also on the road again as they travel to Hungary on Tuesday, live on Sky Sports.
- Wales have failed to win all five of their international matches versus Croatia (D1 L4), losing each of the last four in succession and conceding exactly twice in each of those defeats.
- Croatia have won their last four home matches in all competitions since drawing 0-0 with England in the UEFA Nations League in October 2018.
- Wales have now lost four of their last five away matches across all competitions (W1), as many as they had lost in their previous 14 such games (W5 D5 L4).
- Jamie Lawrence is the first player to score an own goal for Wales since Ashley Williams did so against Iceland in March 2014, five years and 95 days ago.
Croatia: Livakovic (7), Jedvaj (6), Lovren (6), Vida (6), Barisic (6), Brozovic (7), Modric (8), Kovacic (7), Perisic (9), Brekalo (7), Kramaric (7).
Subs used: Pasalic (5), Badelj (5), Skoric (n/a).
Wales: Hennessey (6), Roberts (5), J Lawrence (6), Mepham (7), B Davies (6), James (6), Smith (6), Allen (6), Wilson (7), Vaulks (7), Bale (7).
Subs used: Brooks (7), Ampadu (6), Matondo (n/a).
Man of the match: Ivan Perisic.