Andrej Kramaric strikes twice as Croatia fight back in style to send Canada out

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Alphonso Davies needed only 68 seconds to write his name into history as Canada’s first goalscorer at a men’s World Cup. But a dream opening spiralled rapidly into a nightmare when the fastest goal of the tournament so far was made irrelevant by strikes from Andrej Kramaric (twice), Marko Livaja and Lovro Majer.

Croatia vaulted to the joint-lead of Group F and sent Canada crashing out of their second World Cup finals, nearly four decades after their mostly forgettable debut.

Morocco’s shock 2-0 win earlier against Belgium, their first World Cup victory in 24 years and their first group‑stage defeat since 1994, had narrowed Canada’s path to the knockout stage but did nothing to alter the objective on the night. John Herdman’s group of players still needed a win or draw to keep alive their hopes of advancing from a group suddenly tossed into disarray.

Four days after a frustrating 1-0 defeat against Belgium – where Les Rouges became the first side to attempt at least 20 shots and one penalty in a game while failing to score in 44 years – Canada’s long-awaited maiden goal was a thing of sweeping beauty worth the 36‑year wait.

A long, accurate distribution from the goalkeeper Milan Borjan found Tajon Buchanan, who calmly waited along the touchline for Davies to make his run. The 22-year-old Bayern Munich man galloped down the pitch, rising between Josip Juranovic and Dejan Lovren and heading Buchanan’s perfect cross into the back of the net. It was a spot of redemption for Davies, whose poorly taken penalty in the opening minutes against Belgium cost his side dearly – and perhaps fatally, as it turns out.

The early goal left Croatia momentarily shellshocked as Canada, a blur of collective movement in their black kit, poured on the attack with pace and verve. But it was not long before the big names from the World Cup runners-up in 2018 – Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic – found their footing and got matters under control in midfield. Gradually they became more organised in attack and put one question after another to Canada’s increasingly vulnerable defence.

The breakthrough, when it came, felt inevitable as Ivan Perisic slipped a pass into the box for Kramaric, who finished coolly and was mobbed by his teammates. By the end of the half Croatia were in total control and threatening with regularity before Livaja’s left-footed missile from a step outside the area tore into the net for Croatia’s second, silencing the thousands of red-clad Canadian supporters packed into the south end of the stadium.

“We managed to stabilise ourselves and get back on our feet,” Dalic said afterwards. “When you get back on your feet against such a great energetic team, that means a great victory. This is what made me proud and happy. Croatia once again demonstrated power, strength and quality.”

Herdman, the 47-year-old manager from Consett in County Durham, made a pair of changes at half-time – the young attacker Ismaël Koné for the injured Stephen Eustáquio and Jonathan Osorio for Cyle Larin – and went to a three-man backline shortly after. Canada responded with a pair of promising chances in the opening 10 minutes, but the tactical fine-tuning did little to slow the humming Croatian midfield, who launched one counterattack after another that pushed Canada’s defence toward its breaking point.

“The more you push the more you had to risk and the more open you were to their quality.” Herdman said. “You’ve got to make tactical adjustments coming into the second half, which leaves you open. And when you open yourself up to a team like Croatia, they’re going to be clinical in transition. And I thought they gave a masterclass in those transitional moments.”

The next goal came in the 70th minute when Kramaric calmly collected a cross from Perisic inside the area and took one touch before firing a left-footed shot inside the far post through the legs of the 39-year-old captain, Atiba Hutchinson, the lone Canadian player who was alive the last time the country played in a World Cup and whose 100th international appearance will be one to forget. Majer made it four deep into stoppage time after a mistake by Kamal Miller, sending Croatia’s ultras into a state of delirium behind the goal.

Canada had not even come close to qualifying for the World Cup since their first and only appearance back in 1986, when they exited the group stage with losses to France, Hungary and the USSR without scoring a goal. This time they have shown far better, playing at times enthralling football, but will head home with cruelly little to show for it before co-hosting in four years’ time.

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