Croatia have gone to the top of Group I in 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying after beating Iceland 2-0 at an empty Maksimir stadium on a cold and damp Zagreb evening.
A Marcelo Brozović double has sent Croatia to the top of the group where they will end the international year. Croatia, who started with captain Luka Modrić on the bench, were the first to have to defend after Iceland created an opening in the very first minute of the match which was thwarted well by stand-in captain Vederan Ćorluka.
Iceland looked threatening in the opening quarter as Croatia made a number of errors in the middle of the park with the dangerous looking Gylfi Sigurdsson having the best of the chances.
Croatia made Iceland pay when they opened the scoring with one of their first attacks in the 15th minute when Inter Milan midfielder Marcelo Brozović fired past the hapless Icelandic keeper from the edge of the box.
There was plenty of room in the midfield in an error-ridden first half which suited Mateo Kovačić, and the Real Madrid star begun to go on a number of his trademark mazy runs which opened up space out wide.
Besides a clear chance to Ivan Perišić there was little in the way of real chances for Croatia in the first spell as striker Mario Mandžukić was starved of the ball.
Iceland were not without chances and managed to create a few half-chances but Croatia’s defence and keeper Danijel Subašić were up to the task when it mattered in the first half. Swansea’s Sigurdsson in particular was busy and aggressive causing problems for Josip Pivarić and co in Croatia’s defence.
Croatia coach Ante Čačić bought on captain Modrić at half time in place of his Real Madrid team-mate Kovačić and immediately started to make an impact, creating a chance for Pivarić whose shot drew a save from Halldorsson.
Much of the second half however mirrored the first with little in the way of clear cut chances being created. Whilst Croatia enjoyed more possession after the introduction of Modrić, they failed in the final third of the park to break down a tough, tall Iceland defence.
Iceland looked dangerous on the counter-attack and had a real chance in the 62nd minute to equalise but Bodvarsson shot wide from a tough angle close in front.
It was Modrić who drew the first save in the spell out of Halldorsson when he let fly from just outside the box. Croatia then created back-to-back chances from crosses but Halldorsson was again up to the task.
Croatia finally doubled their lead when Brozović scored his second of the match in injury time in a goal similar to his first as he shot from just outside the box to beat Halldorsson.
In the end Croatia managed a deserved 2-0 win and three points and remain unbeaten in the group which will please coach Čačić who was faced with the last two home games behind closed doors.
Čačić now takes his side to Belfast for a friendly with Northern Ireland on 15 November. Croatia’s next 2018 World Cup qualifier is at home against Ukraine in March but they will be without winger Perišić who was sent off in the dying minutes of the match.
CROATIA 2 – 0 ICELAND
2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying – Group I
Maksimir stadium, Zagreb
GOALS: Brozović 15′, 90′
CROATIA: Subašić – Vrsaljko, Ćorluka (C), Vida, Pivarić – Badelj, Kovačić (Modrić ’46) – Brozović, Rakitić (Kramarić ’84), Perišić – Mandžukić (Čop ’90)
ICELAND: Halldorson – Magnusson, Arnason, Sigurdsson, Sevarsson – Bjarnason, Gunnarsson, Sigurdsson, Gudmundsson – Bjarnason (Traustason ’75), Bodvarsson (Kjantansson 75′)