ZURICH: Croatia are virtually certain of a place in the World Cup finals next year after the first leg of the European playoffs and Switzerland are also in line to join them – albeit thanks to a controversial penalty in Northern Ireland.

The Croats capitalised on a dismal defensive display by Greece to win 4-1 in Zagreb.

Greek keeper Orestis Karnezis gave away an early penalty which Luka Modric converted. Nikola Kalinic was unmarked to tap in a second but Sokratis Papastathopoulos’ fine header gave Greece an away goal.

Ivan Perisic headed Croatia’s third before half-time before Andrej Kramaric tapped in after Konstantinos Stafylidis miscued an attempt to chest the ball back to his keeper.

Greece need a 3-0 home win in Sunday’s second leg but Croatia have not lost a competitive fixture by a three-goal margin since a 5-1 defeat by England in 2009.

This was only Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic’s second game in charge, but in overseeing a 2-0 win in Ukraine to secure a play-off spot and now this dominant victory, his side are close to reaching back-to-back World Cups.

Penalty controversy

In Belfast, Northern Ireland were left facing an uphill struggle to reach a first World Cup finals since 1986 after losing to Switzerland in controversial circumstances at Windsor Park.

Ricardo Rodriguez scored with a penalty just before the hour mark after Corry Evans was adjudged to have handled inside the area.

Though that decision was harsh as the ball clearly struck the defender’s shoulder, the Swiss were dominant throughout and might have won by a greater margin had they converted a series of other chances.

They are now strong favourites to reach a fourth consecutive World Cup when the two sides meet again in the second leg in Basel on Sunday.

The result was a disappointment for Northern Ireland, who followed an impressive qualifying campaign with a below-par performance in their first major finals play-off.

Michael O’Neill’s side had finished second in Group C behind Germany, with six wins from their 10 matches, more than they had mustered in any previous World Cup campaign.

Switzerland led Group B throughout, having won nine fixtures in a row, but lost their last game 2-0 to Portugal to miss out on automatic qualification on goal difference.