Croatia secured first place in Group D on Tuesday after a hard-fought 2-1 win over gallant Iceland in Rostov-on-Don, setting up a World Cup last-16 tie with Denmark.
While most eyes were on Argentina and their do-or-die match with Nigeria in Saint Petersburg, Croatia wrapped up top spot in the group thanks to a slick second-half volley by Milan Badelj and a late strike by Ivan Perisic, sandwiching a penalty equaliser from Gylfi Sigurdsson.
“We did everything we could, if you do that you can’t be disappointed, we can look each other in the eye and can carry our heads high,” said Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson afterwards.
“We never gave up… kept on going.”
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said Iceland showed “good character, discipline, and fight” but that even though his side were already through to the last 16, “only a win was satisfactory” for him.
With three wins out of three in Group D, “the focus now moves to the Denmark game, it will be a moment of truth”, he said.
Dalic rested most of the side that thumped Argentina 3-0, with only captain Luka Modric and winger Perisic keeping their places.
“We gave the squad a chance to play in the World Cup but from this moment on the group stage is over, we have done our job,” he said.
Needing a point to make certain of top spot, Croatia dominated early on, with Real Madrid pair Modric and Mateo Kovacic dictating the tempo without creating clear chances.
Midway through the opening period the Nordic side, who had beaten Croatia in qualifying for Russia, took control, threatening from set-pieces and interceptions.
On 25 minutes a trademark long throw from Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson was headed dangerously across the goalmouth by the industrious Hordur Magnusson.
Everton’s Sigurdsson tested goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic from a free-kick, while Birkir Bjarnason, who suffered a nosebleed early on, had shots blocked in quick succession.
Just before the break, a drive by Alfred Finnbogasson whistled past the post. Then on the stroke of half-time, Gunnarsson forced an acrobatic save from Kalinic.
‘Let’s go further’
Soon after the break the match turned when Fiorentina midfielder Badelj first clipped the bar with a long-range drive, then made no mistake soon after on 53 minutes.
The 29-year-old got his right foot over a deflected cross and fired a volley wide of Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson to give Croatia the lead.
“Now we can concentrate on preparations for the knockout stage,” said Badelj. “This is a big new win for Croatia. There is no special celebration, let’s go further, step by step through the tournament.”
Iceland had to claim their first ever World Cup victory to have a chance of advancing and, urged on by fans chanting their famous Viking thunderclap, almost equalised immediately.
First, a flick-on from another Gunnarsson long throw found Sverrir Ingason whose header was tipped over by Kalinic.
Moments later Ingason, who plays his club football for Rostov, went even closer but his header hit the crossbar.
On 73 minutes Bjarnason fluffed a close-range opportunity, but Iceland’s lifeline arrived a minute later when Dejan Lovren handled a cross by Sigurdsson in the penalty area.
Sigurdsson had ballooned a penalty over the bar against Nigeria, but this time dispatched his shot into the roof of the net with Kalinic diving the wrong way.
But as Iceland strained for the winner and a surprise berth in the last 16, it was Croatia who threatened more, free-kicks by Perisic and Rakitic worrying Halldorsson.
Then on 90 minutes, Perisic delivered the final blow.
Sent into space on the left of the area the Inter Milan winger blasted a shot that ended both the game and Iceland’s World Cup, putting Croatia through to a match against the Danes in Nizhny Novogrod on Sunday.
“We did not look the best on the pitch today, but it’s important to win on such occasions,” said Perisic. “Denmark are strong. We need to play much better if we want to reach the quarter-finals.”