Ten-man Croatia reached next year’s World Cup finals after goals from striker Mario Mandzukic and captain Darijo Srna secured a 2-0 aggregate win over Iceland in an action-packed return leg of their playoff in Zagreb.
Mandzukic opened the scoring with a clinical goal in the 27th minute but was sent off for a vicious foul on Johann Gudmundsson shortly before halftime, raising concerns that Croatia might fail to qualify for next year’s tournament after missing out on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
But the home side were unfazed by being a man down, and Srna added the second goal two minutes after the break, rifling in a low shot from 15 metres as he cut in on the right flank after a darting run and pinpoint delivery by midfielder Mateo Kovacic.
Kovacic missed a clearcut chance when Iceland keeper Hannes Halldorsson turned his shot around the post and Ivica Olic crashed a spectacular overhead kick against the crossbar as Croatia hit top gear to end Iceland’s hopes of qualifying for their first major tournament.
Following a tepid performance in a goalless first leg in Reykjavik on Friday, the much-improved Croatians nearly took a first-minute lead when Kovacic blasted the ball over the bar from 12 metres after a low cross by Luka Modric was half-cleared into his path.
Roared on by a patriotic 25,000 home crowd, Croatia laid siege to Iceland’s goal and were nearly caught cold at the other end as keeper Stipe Pletikosa parried a stinging Gylfi Sigurdsson shot, with Alfred Finnbogason well offside as he put the rebound into the net.
Halldorsson kept out a swerving Srna free kick midway through the first half but was powerless in the 27th minute when Mandzukic showed a predator’s instinct to turn the ball in from close range after a deflected Ivan Rakitic cross from the left.
Mandzukic saw a stooping header turned around the post shortly afterwards but then gave Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers no choice but to send him off after a lunging, studs-up tackle into Gudmundsson’s groin.
Srna’s sublime finish settled Croatian nerves, and with the home fans chanting coach Niko Kovac’s name at the Maksimir stadium, the hosts were denied a bigger win by the outstanding Halldorsson, who kept out several shots as he was exposed to fast breaks by the home team.