Croatia confirmed their place at next year’s FIFA World Cup after seeing out a 0-0 draw in Greece to seal a 4-1 aggregate victory.
After falling to a crushing defeat on Thursday night, the Greeks were the better side here however Danijel Subašić was rarely troubled, with both sides registering just one shot on target between them in the entire match.
Nevertheless the hard work had already been done for Croatia, who reached their fifth World Cup in just six attempts.
Greece much improved but unable to test Subašić
An awful night for Greece in Zagreb on Thursday night had seen their World Cup hopes all but ended, and Coach Michael Skibbe unsurprisingly swung the changes, altering six of his starting line-up with three changes from the side that finished the match. Amongst them, Kostas Manolas returned from suspension and skipper Vasilis Torosidis was fit to start as well. Croatia made just one change, with the fit-again Mario Mandžukić replacing Andrej Kramarić.
Although the game got off to a niggly start, littered with fouled, Greece were noticeably more positive, although shots from Panagiotis Tachtsidis and Sokratis were off target. They could have had a penalty before that, when Ivan Strinić held back Zeca by his shorts, yet all the referee saw was the Greek winger holding the defender’s shoulder and the free-kick went the other way.
For all of their intent though, Subašić was rarely troubled in the Croatian goal, with the AS Monaco goalkeeper’s only real involvement being to divert a Kostas Mitroglou cross away from the head of Panagiotis Retsos before the defender could head it towards goal.
Knowing Greece had to score three times, Croatia were happy not to attack with the same abandon as in the first leg. Ivan Perišić had their best chances before the break, getting the better of Torosidis before shooting wide, and then from outside the box he struck into the top of the post.
Croatia’s ticket to Russia rarely at threat
Olympique de Marseille striker Mitroglou had had very little involvement across the two legs, but he came the closest he’d came soon after half-time, shooting wide, although Subašić probably had it covered if it had been onside.
A double change by Skibbe, with Kostas Fortounis and Yannis Gianniotas coming on, didn’t make too much difference to their attacking threat, although the latter was played through soon after entering the pitch, only to be flagged offside. A cross from Torosidis meanwhile could easily have led to an own goal, with a touch from Dejan Lovren going off the face of Marcelo Brozović, but fortunately for them the ball was claimed by Subašić.
With time starting to run out for the hosts, they did finally get the ball in the net. Zeca’s cross was passed by Tachtsidis to Torosidis, who was offside and eventually flagged as such. His shot was saved by Subašić, and the second ball was put in by substitute Dimitris Pelkas, but it was not to be.
Although Perišić had hit the post, incredibly neither side hit the target until the 87th minute. It fell to Greece, Tachtsidis to be precise after a free-kick was initially cleared however Subašić was able to make the save.
By then though, the most optimistic of Greek fans will have given up all hope, and it’s Croatia who can start making plans for Russia next summer. Zlatko Dalić, appointed as interim coach less than 48 hours before their crucial final qualifier against Ukraine in October, will be hoping he has done enough to be the man who takes them there.