Croatia got an automatic berth in next year’s World Cup finals in dramatic fashion when a late Fedor Kudryashov own goal gave them a 1-0 home win over Russia in their crunchy Group D qualifier on Sunday.
Croatia, the 2018 World Cup runner-up, jumped over Russia to top the standings with 23 points from 10 matches, one more than the Russians in second place, who are due to enter the March play-offs.
Croatia dominated a game played in torrential rain, but a series of good saves by visiting goalkeeper Matvei Safonov and a water-filled pitch kept them in check before Kudryashov’s clumsy touch in the 80th minute delighted the home fans.
When they needed a draw to qualify, the Russians defended with everyone behind the ball and sucked in an intense pressure as the Croats besieged their goal but failed to create clear chances.
Andrej Kramaric headed straight at Safonov in the ninth minute before Marcelo Brozovic unleashed two long-range attacks, one sailed inches wide and the other made an acrobatic save from the visiting goalkeeper.
Safonov held off a nearby header from Mario Pasalic with an excellent stop in the 47th minute, and the Russians seemed to be at home and dry before regretting Kudryashov’s mistake.
With waves of Croatian attacks losing momentum on a difficult pitch, left-back Borna Sosa floated in a hopeful cross from the left and Kudryashov bundled the ball into his own net after jumping awkwardly in front of him.
Russia missed their only chance to save the match from their first floating move in the break, with Vyacheslav Karavaev shooting over the crossbar from 18 yards out.
Ondrej Duda scored a hat trick Slovakiawins 6-0 Malta, who had Teddy Teuma and Ryan Camenzuli sent off in the six minutes after the break.