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Ivan Perisic's winner sends Croatia to top of table
June 27, 2018, 12:03 am

Iceland failed in their attempt to reach the World Cup knockout stage for the first time as Croatia secured a late win to top Group D on maximum points. The Nordic nation knew they had to win to stand any chance of reaching the last 16, and their colourful support looked dejected as their side missed key chances late in the first half.

Alfred Finnbogason and Birkir Bjarnason both went close before the interval in Rostov-on-Don but Milan Badelj stylishly slammed home for Croatia after the break. That forced Iceland to chase the game and, after Sverrir Ingason hit the bar, Gylfi Sigurdsson converted a penalty to level following Dejan Lovren's handball.

Bjorn Sigurdarson of Iceland is challenged by Mateo Kovacic of Croatia 

In the dying minutes, with Argentina leading Nigeria 2-1, Iceland knew a win would see them jump ahead of the South American side in second place.But their attacks became less frequent as Croatia took more control and Ivan Perisic - one of only two players to retain his place from the win over Argentina - fired home in injury time. His side now face Denmark in the last 16 on Sunday, a day after Argentina play France. 

With a population of about 300,000, Iceland's achievement in becoming the smallest nation to reach the World Cup means their fans will travel home with a sense of pride, albeit tinged with disappointmentThey arrived in southern Russia knowing even a win may not be enough had Nigeria beaten Argentina, but the manner in which they missed chances at key moments - against a side that made nine changes - will perhaps feel like an opportunity wasted. Heimir Hallgrimsson's side were the lowest scorers of the European sides who qualified automatically for the tournament, and a lack of end product undoubtedly proved key in their exit.

They had grown into the opening 45 minutes as a Croatia side showing little intent ended the period on the back foot despite having 65% possession. Finnbogason side-footed into the side-netting from 18 yards, Bjarnason could only drive against the legs of keeper Lovre Kalinic and Aron Gunnarsson was denied by a one-handed save on the stroke of half-time. Badelj made them pay as, moments after rattling the bar from 30 yards, he powered a shot into the ground which flew into the net.

The instant fight shown epitomized the qualities which have endeared Iceland to so many, with Ingason forcing a save then planting another header onto the bar from the resulting corner.

Sigurdsson lifted home a penalty which Lovren had conceded with his first touch but Iceland - perhaps finally feeling the effects of long spells out of possession - succumbed to Perisic's powerful left-foot strike.

Croatia appear a side rejuvenated under Zlatko Dalic, who only took charge with one World Cup qualification match remaining. His side were beaten to top spot in qualifying by Iceland but have not yet lost a competitive game under him, and this win - with a much-changed line-up - perhaps points to a confidence running through the squad.

Only Perisic and Luka Modric remained from the 3-0 win over Argentina, but players such as Fiorentina midfielder Badelj showcased the depth of talent.

Real Madrid's Mateo Kovacic came into the side, and in 82 minutes completed 78 of his 79 passes in a composed display, while former Tottenham defender Vedran Corluka was robust and completed a game-high nine clearances.

This was far from an intense or overly impressive display by the group winners, but they spent long spells keeping possession without ever looking like over-exerting themselves. Ultimately, the result only adds to their momentum.

They have now won three World Cup matches in a row for the first time and, in doing so, win a group at the tournament for the first time too.

Dalic says he is convinced the last 16 will not be the end for his side. They look set to arrive in Nizhny Novgorod for Sunday's meeting with Denmark fresh and dangerous.

Croatia like the second-half - the key stats

  • Ivan Perisic has scored three World Cup goals for Croatia - only Davor Suker (6) has scored more.
  • Gylfi Sigurdsson's penalty for Iceland was the 17th scored at the 2018 World Cup, equalling the most penalties scored in a single World Cup tournament (also 17 in 1998).
  • Croatia scored with both of their shots on target in this match.
  • Sigurdsson became the second player to have scored a goal and missed a penalty at the 2018 World Cup, after Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo.
  • Milan Badelj scored only his second goal for Croatia, with this his first since netting against Malta in September 2011 during qualifying for Euro 2012.
  • Of Croatia's last 11 goals at the World Cup, 10 have been scored in the second half.
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