Croatia has kept their 2018 World Cup hopes alive after a double from Andrej Kramaric gave them a 2-0 win over Ukraine on Monday night in Kiev.
Croatia will now head to the playoffs in November as the best eight second-placed sides battle for four spots after finishing Group I in second spot.
New coach Zlatko Dalic made two changes from the side which drew 1-1 with Finland on Friday, bringing in Milan Badelj for the injured Marcelo Brozovic and Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren for Josip Pivaric.
Croatia started brightly, creating a chance in the opening minute but Mario Mandzukic’s header from six yards out was deflected just over.
Croatia came close again in the 17th minute but Domagoj Vida’s shot, after good build-up work, flew just past the post, but it was Ukraine, with 70,000 fans behind them, who would have the better of the first half.
Rakitsky and Stepanenko came the closest with shots from outside the box, whilst Konoplyanka headed just wide from close range as the sides went into the break scoreless.
Croatia came out in the second half with a lot more energy and urgency, especially captain Luka Modric who started looking for the ball and creating chances.
And it was Modric whose would help Croatia find the vital breakthrough in the 62nd minute when his pinpoint cross picked out the free Andrej Kramaric in the box and he made no mistake heading it past the hapless Ukraine keeper.
Kramaric doubled the lead eight minutes later when he tapped in a cross across the face of goal from Ivan Rakitic.
Group I Final Standings
1. Iceland – 22
2. CROATIA – 20
3. Ukraine – 17
4. Turkey – 15
5. Finland – 10
6. Kosovo – 1
“Our goal was to leave our hearts on the pitch and we showed that. We played a mature match with no panicking or rushing. Congratulations to the guys for their fight but nothing is done yet. Only half the job is done. We must get ready for the playoffs,” Modric said after the match.
The playoff draw will be made next Tuesday with Croatia seeded. Potential opponents are likely to be either Greece, Sweden, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland.
UKRAINE 0-2 CROATIA
2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier, Group I
Olimpiyskiy stadium, Kiev
GOALS: Kramaric 62′, 70′
UKRAINE: Pjatov; Karavajev, Rakicki, Kačeridi, Matvienko; Stepanenko, Rotanj; Jarmolenko, Marlos, Konopljanka; Garmaš
CROATIA: Subasic; Vida, Mitrovic, Lovren, Vrsaljko (Pivaric ’85); Rakitic, Badelj; Kramaric (Pasalic ’88), Modric, Perisic; Mandzukic (Rog ’90)