Croatia will go into the new year two points clear at the top of UEFA EURO 2012 Group F following a straightforward victory against Malta in Zagreb.
Two first-half strikes from Niko Kranjčar and a late goal from substitute Nikola Kalinić were enough to give the hosts three points on a rain-sodden pitch at the Stadion Maksimir. Croatia will now start 2011 with a clear advantage over closest rivals Greece, while Malta remain rooted to the foot of the table having lost all four of their qualifiers.
Croatia toiled to unpick a well-organised Maltese defence early on, but the wet surface proved to be the visitors' biggest problem; indeed, it was from a slip by defender Massimo Grima on 19 minutes that Croatia scored their opener. Kranjčar pounced on the mistake and fired a low drive from the edge of the area into the right-hand corner of the goal.
With the visitors posing little threat up front, Slaven Bilić's men probed patiently for a second but fashioned few clear-cut chances until three minutes before the interval, when Eduardo, in space on the edge of the area, squared for Kranjčar to hammer a right-footed shot into the roof of the net. The Tottenham Hotspur FC midfielder had also registered twice in Croatia's previous qualifier, a 2-1 win in Israel.
John Buttigieg's Malta have scored just once in Group F but could have struck twice soon after the restart. A minute into the second period, Michael Mifsud cut in from the left channel and struck a fierce effort just centimetres over. Then, on 54 minutes, Daniel Bogdanovic whipped in a cross from the right which André Schembri just failed to get a touch on.
Those warning shots roused the home side. Kalinić blasted over with his left foot following a run into the area in the 78th minute but made amends three minutes later when he capitalised on confusion in Malta's penalty area. A Darijo Srna corner eventually came to Kranjčar and he fed the Blackburn Rovers FC striker to side-foot underneath Andrew Hogg for a final effort that added gloss to Croatia's success.