Croatia gave themselves a fighting chance of reaching the World Cup knockout phase for the first time since 1998 when they thrashed toothless Cameroon 4-0 on Wednesday with defeat condemning the Africans to an early tournament exit.
Evergreen striker Ivica Olic put Croatia ahead after 11 minutes and Cameroon, who cannot now qualify from Group A after losing their first two games, were reduced to 10 men five minutes before halftime when Alex Song was shown a straight red for striking Mario Mandzukic.
Ivan Perisic seized on a poor clearance by Cameroon keeper Charles Itandje to race forward and drive in the second shortly after the break.
An unmarked Mario Mandzukic, back after suspension ruled him out of the tournament opener, headed the third on his World Cup debut just after an hour and tapped in his second as Croatia strolled to a comfortable victory.
The result left the Croatians third in the group on three points from two games, one behind Brazil and Mexico ahead of Monday’s decisive clash with the Mexicans in Recife.
“We weren’t at our best in the opening five or 10 minutes but improved later,” said Croatia coach Niko Kovac.
“We let (Cameroon) have too many chances and we still have much potential left.”
Cameroon, who have won only one game in their last five World Cups, finished in disarray with defender Benoit Assou Ekotto appearing to head-butt team mate Benjamin Moukandjo and a more serious scuffle was only prevented by a rival Croatian player.
With Mandzukic adding bite up front after reclaiming his spot from Nikica Jelavic and playmaker Luka Modric shrugging off a foot injury to pull the strings in midfield, the Croatians coud have scored more goals but for some slack finishing.
They took the lead as the 34-year-old Olic, becoming his country’s oldest scorer in the World Cup, swept home a sharp low drive by Perisic who capitalised on poor defending as Cameroon failed to clear an inviting Darijo Srna cross from the right.
Cameroonian hopes of a comeback vanished in almost unbearably humid air when Song was shown a straight red card for inexplicably hitting Mandzukic on the back as Croatia broke forward five minutes before halftime.
“This hurts, a result like this. I know it’s hard to play 11 versus 10 but it’s not necessary to lose control like that …,” said Cameroon coach Volker Finke.
Cheered on by the vast majority of local fans in the Amazonia arena, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions looked toothless without injured captain and striker Samuel Eto’o.
Croatia duly doubled their lead early in the second half after Perisic took a poor Itandje goal-kick in his stride, raced into the penalty box and beat the keeper with a crisp finish.
With gaps appearing in Cameroon’s defence, the tireless Mandzukic headed home the third and then converted a rebound after Itanje could only parry a stinging shot by Brazilian-born substitute Eduardo da Silva.