SHKODRA, Albania — Mario Mandzukic struck a first-half hat trick for Croatia to hand Kosovo’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign a bitter setback on Thursday.
The team from the tiny Balkan nation earned a credible 1-1 draw in Finland last month in its competitive international debut and was looking to spring another surprise against heavy favourite Croatia.
But Croatia and Mandzukic had different ideas, and won 6-0. It was the first competitive home game for Kosovo but played in Albania’s northern city of Shkodra, as Kosovo has no stadium certified by UEFA.
All 16,000 seats in Shkodra’s recently renovated stadium were filled.
Kosovo became a UEFA member in May, joined FIFA a week later, and was fast-tracked into World Cup qualifying though many nations still have not recognized it.
Proving the sensitivity of the move, Croat fans started chanting in Serbo-Croatian "Kill, kill the Serbs" in the second half, and they were echoed and followed by Kosovo fans, too, in Albanian.
Croatia was without star midfielders Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric but had another star available: Mandzukic ruthlessly exploited Kosovo’s inexperience and needed just six minutes to open the scoring off a pass from Andrej Kramaric.
And that was just the beginning for the striker.
In the 24th, Mandzukic met Ivan Perisic’s cross to head home and double the lead, and completed his hat trick with another header 10 minutes before the interval, this time using a cross from Sime Vrsaljko, for his 27th goal in 71 internationals.
With the damage done and the result beyond doubt early, Mandzukic was substituted by Nikola Kalinic in the 58th.
Matej Mitrovic, Perisic and Kalinic added one each for Croatia to finish Kosovo off.
With only the winner qualifying automatically, Croatia is tied atop Group I with Iceland, on four points. Ukraine and Turkey have two points after their 2-2 draw. Kosovo is at the bottom of the group with one.
ICELAND 3, FINLAND 2
Iceland rallied in the final minutes to earn its first victory in qualifying.
Alfred Finnbogason levelled the score in the final minute of the match, and Ragnar Sigurdsson scored the winner deep into stoppage time for the surprise Euro 2016 quarterfinalist.
Gylfi Sigurdsson wasted a golden opportunity to tie it at 2-2 from the spot earlier in the second.
Finland, which is also seeking its first World Cup appearance, took a 2-1 lead with goals from Teemu Pukki and Robin Lod.
Kari Arnason scored for Iceland in the first half.
TURKEY 2, UKRAINE 2
Hakan Calhanoglu converted from the spot nine minutes from time to keep Turkey in contention.
The Ukraine visitors, who hope to add another World Cup appearance after reaching the quarterfinals in 2006, made a strong start through Andriy Yarmolenko from the penalty spot, and Artem Kravets doubled the lead for Ukraine just three minutes later.
Ozan Tufan reduced the lead to one in first-half stoppage time to start the Turkish comeback.