Wales suffered a Euro 2020 setback as Croatia beat them 2-1 on a scorching afternoon in Osijek.
A 17th-minute James Lawrence own goal and an Ivan Perisic strike at the start of the second half sealed Wales’ fate on a day when Croatia were too hot to handle.
Substitute David Brooks gave Wales a lifeline 13 minutes from time with a deflected drive and the Bournemouth forward almost equalised in the final seconds to snatch an unlikely point.
The temperature gauge was touching 30 degrees at kick-off and the two teams took water breaks at the midway point of the first and second periods.
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic had expressed his displeasure with the afternoon kick-off, claiming UEFA had disrespected his World Cup finalists by not staging the game in the evening.
It was, however, always Wales who were likely to be punished by the 3pm kick-off time given Croatia’s capacity to keep possession and force their opponents to expend energy chasing the ball.
Luka Modric might be a few months shy of his 34th birthday, but Wales regularly struggled to get near the Real Madrid craftsman, who dictated the tempo of the contest.
The size of Wales’ task was reflected by Croatia’s daunting home record.
The World Cup finalists had never lost a Euro qualifier at home, a 32-game run stretching back to their first match in the competition in 1994, and had not been beaten at home for six years.
Croatia were also unbeaten in 11 games in Osijek, an inhospitable venue where Wales had previously succumbed in 2010 and 2013.
Wales made one change from the side which got their Euro 2020 campaign off to a winning start in March.
Rotherham midfielder Will Vaulks came in for his first competitive start as Manchester United-bound winger Daniel James, who had scored the winner against Slovakia, provided pace in the Wales attack alongside Gareth Bale.
Croatia dominated the early exchanges with their slick passing and Chris Mepham had to react quickly to snuff out Andrej Kramaric.
Perisic also fired over before a brilliant bit of quick thinking from Gareth Bale almost caught Croatia napping.
Bale sent a quick long throw over the head of Dejan Lovren and on to the left foot of Harry Wilson.
The ball sat up nicely for Wilson to volley but the effort lacked power and was easily collected by Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.
It was to prove a costly miss as Modric soon picked out Perisic with a delightful pass, which Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey chose not to come for and retreat instead towards his goal.
Perisic’s pass was aimed for the lurking Kramaric, but Lawrence intervened to roll the ball into his own net.
Wales had been almost non-existent as an attacking force in the first half, but they managed to involve James just before the break.
He sent over a deep cross which Wilson placed into the path of Vaulks to drive at goal. Livakovic failed to hold Vaulks’ effort and then clawed it back in as Ben Davies almost bundled in the rebound.
Croatia made a fast start to the second half and doubled their lead after 48 minutes.
The Wales defence was all over the place after possession was conceded just outside their penalty area and Perisic swept home after Connor Roberts had failed to clear at the far post.
Croatia had been denied a second moments earlier when Hennessey saved from Josip Brekalo and Mateo Kovacic’s follow-up effort was ruled out for offside.
Bale brought two saves from Livakovic as Wales gambled by pushing men forward and Brooks gave them hope 13 minutes from time with his first international goal.
That set up a thrilling conclusion with chances at both ends, but Croatia held on to take top spot in Group E.
Liverpool pair Alisson and Roberto Firmino are back in contention for a place in the Brazil side for their final Copa America warm-up match against Honduras on Sunday.
The Champions League-winning pair joined up with the squad on Friday to increase the options of Brazil coach Tite, who also has Chelsea star Willian available.
Their arrival represents a timely boost to the camp after Neymar was ruled out of the tournament with an ankle ligament injury suffered in the recent win over Qatar.
The absence of the Paris Saint-Germain striker prompted Tite to turn to Willian over other popular choices, most notably Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr.
Tite is not expected to play his full first-choice starting line-up against Honduras, although Alisson is in line to replace Manchester City number one Ederson.
Firmino is likely to be given more time to bed in with the squad, meaning another start for another City player, Gabriel Jesus, who scored the second goal in the 2-0 win over Qatar.
Brazil, who kick off their Copa America campaign against Bolivia in Sao Paolo on Friday, will look to enhance their status as tournament favourites following their relatively low-key win over the Qataris.
New Honduras coach Fabian Coito is looking for improvement from his side as they build up towards their own Gold Cup campaign.
Successive draws against Ecuador and Paraguay have increased positivity in the Honduran camp, as has a favourable Gold Cup draw which pits them against Jamaica, El Salvador and Curacao.
The 21-year-old started alongside Gareth Bale and Harry Wilson on the left side of a front three for Ryan Giggs’ team and showed one or two flashes of the brilliant promise that have regularly been on display throughout an impressive season in the Championship at Swansea.
It’s fair to say that a lot of non-Welsh United fans would have been tuning into this game a day after the club confirmed that their first signing of the summer – and the Ole Gunnar Solksjaer era – was going to be the young Yorkshireman.
James enjoyed a breakout year with the Swans – scoring five times across 38 games in all competitions as well as posting the most league assists for the Liberty Stadium side (7).
It prompted the Red Devils to strike an £18million with the club from south Wales, with many probably not knowing an awful lot about the Hull City academy graduate.
Wales have undergone a massive transformation in the last decade. Gary Speed undertook a major revamp after years spent in mediocrity, his excellent work was carried on by Chris Coleman and Ryan Giggs now has the blueprint – as well as an exciting cast of bright young talent with which – to launch a new era. Flailing at 112th in FIFA’s rankings when Speed took over, Wales are now 19th.
But their second game in Group E of Euro 2020 qualifying was away at Croatia – World Cup finalists a year ago and a formidable opponent for any team.
Zlatko Dalic’s side dominated from the opening whistle with Ivan Perisic giving Wales right-back Conor Roberts a torrid time. And it was from an electric counter-attack that they took the lead. Perisic was in acres of space down the left and intelligently squared for Andrej Kramaric, though James Lawrence intervened and could only stick into his own goal.
The Inter Milan forward scored the second when he fired beyond Wayne Hennessey early in the second half, though the Welsh defence will not want to see their woeful attempts at clearing again.
The Dragons did threaten the goal a lot more after the break and had their chances to equalise after substitute David Brooks fired in via a deflection 13 minutes from time, but the side ranked fifth in the world were well worthy of victory.
We kept an eye on the new United man.
Frightening talent – The thing is with good players is that, even when they’re not in the game, they can affect it in an instance.
James had hardly done a thing as the hosts strangled the life out of their opponents in the opening half, but in the 42nd minute he and Wales finally sparked into life. A perfectly weighted ball over the top from midfielder Matthew Smith found James in stride and he whipped in a delicious cross that Harry Wilson cut back and Will Vaulks fired in a shot that almost led to a goal after it was spilled by Dominik Livakovic.
Wales belatedly burst into life with James the fulcrum of their attacks. Gareth Bale really should have put a chance on a plate for him near the hour mark after expertly taking down Ben Davies’ long ball, but greedily took on the shot, striking poorly at Livakovic.
James then displayed his breathtaking pace when racing onto Bale’s pass and nudging the ball past the exasperated Domagoj Vida whose rash lunge on the latest Red Devil resulted in a yellow card.
Taking control – The gap between the Championship and Premier League is gargantuan, which is not to say it’s unbridgeable, but it takes a special type of player to do so.
Though he showed glimpses when Wales did flow forward, James often looked for the pass rather than testing Croatia’s static back four with his searing speed. Wales’ timid tactics and Croatia’s utter dominance hardly played to James’ strengths, but he’s now a Man United player, which means big things are expected, whatever your age or background.
The 21-year-old is of course still raw and needs time to mature and develop. But at a club like United he also needs to perform. From now on he’ll find himself under an intense spotlight and will need to impose himself on games instead of being a passenger.
7th min: James gets the ball on the left side of the box. He cuts it back for team-mate Smith but Croatia snatch possession.
26th min: Neat flick to Vaulks sets up promising Wales attack, Bale is offside when running on to Vaulks’ pass.
42nd min: Unreal ball from Smith is perfectly weighted for James. He whips in a cross that is cut back by Wilson for Vaulks whose shot is spilled by Livakovic.
43rd min: Wales suddenly spark into life and James is in the thick of the action. His looping cross is poor though and cleared for a throw-in.
45th min: Action again comes down Wales’ left, James plays a poor pass but gets it back and plays in a team-mate, who wins a corner.
64th min: Bale sells a lovely dummy to bypass Croatia’s midfield and start a Welsh attack, he feeds James but the pass is lacking just a little pace and James is shut down by a defender.
68th min: Croatia break and James is seen sprinting to cover the central attacker as Ben Davies drifts out to cover the attacking winger.
69th min: Bale releases James down the left and he knocks the ball away from Vida but can’t escape his crude lunge.
Wales’ failure to assert themselves or stifle Croatia’s flowing attacking game meant James was always destined to be a peripheral figure. But when they did have their moments, it was the new United man, rather than his more illustrious compatriot at Real Madrid, Bale, who looked like he would fire the Dragons into life.
Even though he was unable to impose himself fully, he looked a threat when he did get the ball at his feet or when Wales launched balls in behind the Croatian defence. His frightening pace and tireless work ethic is exactly what the Red Devils require.