Croatia beat Malta 3-0 at home in 2022 World Cup qualifying on Tuesday after second-half substitutes Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric and Josip Brekalo struck to force the rugged visitors into submission on Tuesday.
The Group H result lifted 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia to the top of the standings on six points from three games, ahead of Russia on goal difference after the Russians suffered a 2-1 defeat at third-placed Slovakia, who have five points.
Sixth-placed Malta have one point, courtesy of a 2-2 draw at Slovakia in the previous round of games.
Croatia laid siege to the Maltese area in the first half and created two early chances as Nikola Vlasic shot wide from 10 metres while Mario Pasalic’s 14th-minute header hit the top of the crossbar.
Modric and Perisic, who started on the bench after their exertions in Croatia’s opening two games, made a decisive impact after coach Zlatko Dalic threw them on shortly after the break as the home side struggled to carve out the supply routes.
Perisic broke the deadlock with a close-range finish in the 62nd minute when he turned in a cross by fellow substitute Borna Barisic and Modric made it 2-0 with a 76th-minute penalty after Kyrian Nwoko handled a Mislav Orsic corner.
Brekalo added the third in the 90th minute with a simple tap-in after Perisic raced clear down the left flank and squared a perfect pass to the wing back.
Dalic, who came under pressure from fans and media after Croatia suffered a surprise 1-0 defeat to Slovenia in the opening round of matches, said he was forced to introduce Modric and Perisic after a tepid first-half performance.
He added Croatia must improve in time for the June 11-July 11 European Championship, where they are in the same group as England, Scotland and the Czech Republic.
“I tried to inject some fresh blood into the starting lineup but in the second half I had to bring on players who were supposed to get some rest,” Dalic told Croatia’s Nova television.
“I am well aware we’re not playing at the level we should be doing and we now have to prepare ourselves for the Euros. We have plenty of work to do but we will get better and fitter in time for the tournament.”