A STIRRING second-half fightback couldn’t prevent Wales slipping to a 2-1 defeat to Croatia in their qualifying bid for Euro 2020.

Ryan Giggs’ men fell 2-0 behind but pushed hard for an equaliser after coming on strong against the Group E favourites, who boast a formidable home record in European qualifiers.

David Brooks came off the bench to score with a deflected strike but in the end Wales, who started qualification with a 1-0 win against Slovakia in Cardiff, were left to rue missed chances in Osijek.

There was encouragement in the attacking performance but they will hope to show more of a cutting edge on Tuesday when they travel to Hungary, who stunned Croatia 2-1 in March.

Defeat in Osijek was far from a disaster – and anything away to the top seeds and World Cup semi-finalists would have been a bonus – but Wales may well feel it was a missed opportunity to earn a precious point in what is likely to be a tight Group E.

They had their moments in attack and stretched their hosts but paid the price for some sloppiness in defence, which allowed Croatia to earn the lead and then, professionally if frustratingly, defend it with some rather crude tactics.

For all the class of Luke Modric, the side ranked number five in the world aren’t afraid to put their boot in and in the end they were grateful to hear the final whistle in the sun and heat of Osijek.

Giggs was given food for thought by the impact of his substitutes with Ethan Ampadu providing the midfield link and Brooks threatening in the final third.

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Manchester United-bound Daniel James started in a rapid front three with Gareth Bale and Harry Wilson, the Real Madrid star starting down the right.

Yet after soaking up some predictable early pressure it was Bale’s long throw rather than his left peg that crafted the first clear chance of the game.

He launched the ball through the middle to catch out Dejan Lovren and present Wilson with a glorious chance but the forward, fresh from a strong season with Derby County on loan from Liverpool, could only shoot straight at goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.

The Welsh defence had to be alert with Luka Modric pulling the strings and Ivan Perisic causing problems down the left, and it was that combination that earned the lead after 17 minutes.

Croatia counter-attacked with Modric setting Perisic free down the left – Wayne Hennessey failing to come off his line – and his drilled ball across the box was turned into his own net by centre-back James Lawrence.

Wales steadied the ship but Croatia were dominating possession with Modric imperious, a nightmare scenario in the heat.

However, the visitors were nearly level approaching half-time when the rapid James was released down the left and his deep cross was cut back by Wilson. Vaulks’ shot was tame but it was fumbled by Livakovic into Ben Davies but the goalkeeper just got back before the ball dribbled over the line.

Croatia had dominated for large spells and were good value for their lead but the finish to the half would have encouraged Giggs.

However, Wales started the second half in shocking fashion and were saved by the flag soon after the restart when Hennessey made a smart save despite an offside forward in his sight line, the ball fired past the Palace keeper from the rebound.

There was no escape just seconds later when Wales conceded a nightmare goal after trying to play out from the back.

The ball broke to Modric and he found Kramaric, who was well tackled by Joe Allen but the ball fell to Perisic and his scuffed shot found its way in.

Yet Wales responded well and had two big chances to reduce the deficit, both falling to Bale.

First he failed to find the target with a free-kick on the edge of the box after being felled by Lovren and then he ignored the James in the clear to his left, instead cutting in and having a shot himself after superbly controlling a long ball over the top.

Croatia had their 2-0 lead as the hour-mark passed and Giggs brought young tyros David Brooks and Ethan Ampadu off the bench in a bid to spark something.

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It worked – on 76 minutes Wales had their lifeline when Brooks shifted the ball onto his right on the edge of the box and his shot was deflected in off the head of centre-back Domagoj Vida, who minutes earlier had been cautioned for a shocking tackle on James.

The momentum was with Wales and there were chances at both ends as they pressed for an equaliser.

As the clock ticked towards 90 Hennessey produced a fine save to deny Kramaric and Wales went straight down the other end to craft a wonderful chance, Bale finding Brooks but he couldn’t produce the power to trouble Livakovic.

That was the final chance as time ran out on Wales.

Croatia: Livakovic, Jedvaj, Lovren, Vida, Barisic, Modric, Brozovic, Brekalo (Pasalic 66), Kovacic, Perisic (Skoricat 90), Kramaric.

Scorers: Lawrence (OG), Perisic

Yellow cards: Jedvaj, Lovren, Vida, Brozovic, Brekalo

Wales: Hennessey, Roberts, Mepham, Jamie Lawrence, Ben Davies, Wilson, Allen, Smith (Brooks 65), James (Matondo 79), Vaulks (Ampadu 65), Bale.

Scorer: Brooks

Yellow cards: Bale

Referee: Istvan Kovacs (Romania)