Mandzukic and Srna steer Croatia to World Cup
By Zoran Milosavljevic
ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatia hit top gear at crunch time to beat Iceland 2-0 in the return leg of their World Cup playoff on Tuesday and qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil despite playing nearly an hour with 10 men.
Striker Mandzukic gave the Croatians a 27th-minute lead before he was sent off for a vicious foul on Johann Gudmundsson but captain Darijo Srna sealed their berth in next year's 32-nation tournament shortly after the break, following a goalless stalemate in the reverse fixture in Reykjavik on Friday.
The result was also gratifying for Croatia's new coach Niko Kovac as he kept a seemingly rudderless ship afloat in the first leg after taking over from Igor Stimac, who was sacked following a poor run in which Croatia picked up only one point from their last four Group A games.
"I want to thank Stimac for steering us into the playoffs but most of all I wish to thank the players for leaving it all out there on the pitch tonight, hence I am very proud of them," Kovac told Croatian television after an action-packed match on a chilly night in Zagreb.
"These two crunch games they've played under my tenure have put their character and team spirit to the fore. I hope we can keep improving and make an impact in Brazil," he said.
For Iceland, whose coach Lars Lagerback failed to appear at the post-match press conference, defeat meant they missed out on reaching a major tournament for the first time and becoming the smallest country by population to reach the World Cup finals.
With patriotic songs blaring from the Maksimir stadium's sound system an hour before kickoff, Croatia came out firing and nearly took a first-minute lead when Mateo Kovacic blasted the ball over the bar from 12 meters. Continued...