Croatia have played a big part in Iceland’s footballing history. When the tiny island nation made the play-offs for the World Cup back in 2014, it was Croatia who knocked them out and took a place in the finals instead. When Iceland sealed their passage to this World Cup, they did so at the expense of the Croatians, who were consigned to a spot in the play-offs by the determined Icelanders. Now, in Rostov-on-Don, Iceland were facing Croatia once again, knowing that only a victory over the undefeated – and already qualified – Croatians would be enough to see them through to the knockout stages in their World Cup debut. Zlatko Dalić had made nine changes to the Croatian team that smashed Argentina to seal progress to the round of 16, and Iceland seemed to have a huge opportunity. Instead, they left the game, and the tournament, heartbroken after Croatia nabbed a late winner to scupper Iceland’s dreams.
The game started slowly, with Croatia controlling possession but failing to make any inroads with their attempts to pass through Iceland’s rigid defensive wall. For their part, Iceland started slowly, but as the game progressed they began to find some brilliant chances. One of Aron Gunnarsson’s trademark long throw-ins was flicked on by Hörður Björgvin Magnússon, but Ragnar Sigurðsson couldn’t get on the end of it. Magnússon was involved again shortly afterwards, but he couldn’t hit the target despite getting his head on Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson’s corner. Gylfi Sigurðsson forced Lovre Kalinić into the first save of the game with a nicely directed free-kick. Birkir Bjarnason, looking battered after an earlier collision with Marko Pjaca, had two shots blocked in the space of a few seconds.Embed from Getty Images
Milan Badelj celebrates after opening the scoring with an excellent finish. Badelj finished with a goal and an assist, and his work had a huge impact on the final result.
The chances got better as the teams approached half time. Alfreð Finnbogason missed a golden opportunity when he won the ball and played a one-two with Gylfi Sigurðsson to find himself open and in a dangerous position. He couldn’t find the target from the edge of the box. Croatia only barely survived moments later when Bjarnason slammed a shot at an exposed Kalinić. The goalkeeper, caught out of position by his rash decision to attack a corner, only just managed to repel Bjarnason’s well-hit effort, and the ball trailed harmlessly away from the area. On the stroke of half time, Kalinić was forced into another save, batting away Gunnarsson’s well-placed strike as Iceland went into the break in a decent enough position. Then Croatia recovered.
The Croatians burst out of the blocks after half time, and they put themselves in the lead shortly after the resumption through Milan Badelj. Minutes before the goal, Badelj had nearly scored with a powerful strike that took a slight deflection off Ragnar Sigurðsson and cannoned into the bar. He wasn’t denied when he got another chance. He started it himself, playing a lofted pass towards the left wing which proceeded to bobble around the Icelandic penalty area. After sitting back and watching for a few seconds, Badelj eventually decided to join in the attack. He timed his run to perfection, and he entered the box just as Josip Pivarić’s cross bounced in his direction. With excellent technique, he bounced the ball into the top corner, leaving Hannes Þór Halldórsson with no chance.Embed from Getty Images
Gylfi Sigurðsson celebrates after levelling the scores with a well-taken penalty. The goal wasn’t enough for Iceland, as Croatia grabbed a late winner to snatch victory and eliminate their opponents.
Iceland were behind, but they weren’t going to give up. They surged forward after the goal, and nearly scored when Gunnarsson’s long throw caused chaos in the box. Kalinić needed to use all of his height to tap Sverrir Ingi Ingason’s header over the bar, after Croatia’s defence had no clue what to do with the mighty heave into the box. Ingason nearly scored again seconds later, getting his head on a corner in a brilliant position but only managing to bounce the ball off the top of the bar. Iceland kept pushing, but when Bjarnason squandered a perfect cross from a counter-attacking Finnbogason, it looked like Iceland would be denied the equaliser they so desperately craved. Then they found it. It came from a penalty, with Dejan Lovren carelessly handling the ball in the box. Gylfi Sigurðsson, who had missed a penalty against Nigeria, stepped up again, and this time he made no mistake in drilling it down the middle. Iceland were back, and had the chance to push on for a winner.
That winner never came, as Croatia reasserted their control over the fatigued Icelandic side. Ivan Perišić and Ivan Rakitić had chances after Sigurðsson’s equaliser, and there were signs that Iceland were tiring. Then, in the final seconds of normal time, Perišić delivered the killing blow. Once again, it was Badelj who created the chance, picking the pocket of the exhausted Emil Hallfreðsson and delivering a perfect through ball for Perišić. After collecting the ball in space, Perišić was just too quick, and Halldórsson’s touch wasn’t enough to stop the ball from flying into the back of the net. Iceland didn’t stop fighting, and they nearly managed to bag a very late equaliser, but they were never going to score the two they needed in the time remaining. They showed heart, but in the end they just weren’t quite good enough.
Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
Iceland 1 (Sigurðsson 76 pen)
Croatia 2 (Badelj 53, Perišić 90)
Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz (Esp)
Iceland (4-2-3-1): Halldórsson – Sævarsson, Ingason, R Sigurðsson (Sigurðarson 70), Magnússon; Gunnarsson, Hallfreðsson; J Guðmundsson, G Sigurðsson, Bjarnason (Traustason 90); Finnbogason (A Guðmundsson 85).
Croatia (4-2-3-1): L Kalinić – Jedvaj, Ćorluka, Ćaleta-Car, Pivarić; Modrić (Bradarić 65), Badelj; Pjaca (Lovren 69), Kovačić (Rakitić 81), Perišić; Kramarić.
1. Milan Badelj (Croatia)
Badelj played a key role in both goals, finishing the match with a goal and an assist in a classy midfield performance. He was able to create chances with his attacking runs from midfield, and he made a strong claim for a starting berth in Croatia’s round of 16 clash with Denmark.
2. Birkir Bjarnason (Iceland)
Bjarnason’s work rate is extraordinary, and he showed it in another strong performance. He always seems to be going full throttle, and he was able to have an impact in both attack and defence with his hard efforts down the left flank. He had a few great chances, and came very close to grabbing a goal.
3. Vedran Ćorluka (Croatia)
Ćorluka came into the team as part of a new-look Croatian defence, and used all of his experience to repel some of Iceland’s most dangerous attacks. He was solid in the air and always positioned himself well to win the ball, and he could well earn a starting spot with his excellent performance.
4. Mateo Kovačić (Croatia)
Kovačić was heavily involved as Croatia dominated possession, working well with Luka Modrić and weaving into space very effectively. He continued to find small pockets of space in the Icelandic defence, and he always looked threatening when he had the ball at his feet.
5. Sverrir Ingi Ingason (Iceland)
Ingason was unlucky not to score with a pair of close-range headers just after Iceland went behind, and he did very well to hold the defence together when Ragnar Sigurðsson was substituted in pursuit of goals. He was responsible for some excellent pieces of defensive work, and can take pride in his solid performance.