ZURICH: Croatia and Switzerland, as expected, are celebrating this week after securing their places in the FIFA World Cup finals in Russia next year.
The Croats claimed a goalless draw away to Greece in Athens which followed up their 4-1 victory in last week’s first leg of their European qualifying play-off. Switerland and Northern Ireland also played out a goalless draw in Basel so the Swiss edged through 1-0 on aggregate.
Croatia comfortably negotiated their play-off. Coach Zlatko Dalic’s team were rarely testedby a Greece side who lacked ideas going forward and who took until the 86th minute to muster a shot on target.
Dalic had made just one change from the first leg, with Mario Mandzukic replacing Andrej Kramaric up front, while Greece boss Michael Skibbe swapped six players.
Greece felt they should have had a penalty after 11 minutes when Jose Carlos Zeca went down under the challenge of Ivan Strinic but the referee waved away the appeals. Sokratis Papastathopoulos went close with a volley that drifted just wide.
Croatia looked dangerous for the first time midway through the first half when Ivan Perisic skipped past a challenge and cut into the penalty area before dragging his low shot wide.
The Inter Milan playmaker went closer just before half-time when his 25-yard effort struck a post with goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis well beaten.
Skibbe made an attacking substitution just before the hour mark by introducing Kostas Fortounis and Giannis Gianniotas from the bench but to no avail.
A third substitute, on with just 12 minutes remaining, Dimitrious Pelkas thought he had made an immediate impact by pulling a goal back but he was flagged offside.
Danijel Subasic was actually given some work to do for the first, and only, time in the game four minutes from time when Panagiotis Tachtsidis shot tamely at him.
Irish fall short
Northern Ireland saw their World Cup dream die in Basel on Sunday, though it was a controversial penalty three days earlier that ultimately sent Switzerland through to Russia.
The Green and White Army will spend years seething over Ovidiu Hategan’s decision to give a spot-kick for a handball against Corry Evans at Windsor Park, with the Northern Irish unable to overcome the deficit in a 0-0 draw at St Jakob-Park.
Michael O’Neill’s side went down fighting, with the type of spirit that has typified his tenure – which may now come to an end given the work he has done in taking his small country to the brink of a first World Cup in 32 years.
It might have continued had Jonny Evans’ stoppage-time header not been cleared off the line by Ricardo Rodriguez, the man who converted from 12 yards in Belfast to send Switzerland to their fourth straight World Cup.
The Swiss wasted a number of chances with Haris Seferovic most often the guilty man.
O’Neill, asked about his future, said: “I’ve not even given it any thought. I don’t think it’s a reasonable question at this time. My focus is with the players and the boys in the dressing room.
“They (the players) couldn’t have given any more; what they gave for me, what they gave each other, what they gave for the country was phenomenal.
“I thought the performance was magnificent but ultimately we’ve gone out to a really poor decision in the first leg. I thought our performance was fabulous, our reaction to what happened on Thursday night was fabulous.
“We were the better team, I felt, and yes we had to ride our luck at times, we knew that, but right until the 94th minute we were pushing to try and keep our dream alive of going to the World Cup.
“There’s a devastated bunch of players in there but I couldn’t be any prouder of their efforts. I’m sure they’ll have some regrets about the performance in the first leg but ultimately if it wasn’t for the penalty we’d have drawn the first leg 0-0 and we’d still be playing extra time now.
“Over the two legs, for us to miss out off the nature of the decision and how it was given, is extremely cruel. The players are emotional and upset. There were some players in tears, everyone was struggling to hold back their emotions. Emotions are very high – there’s huge, huge disappointment.
“For some of these players it’s unlikely that the World Cup will ever come round again. What we got from every single one was more than I could ask for.”