World Cup qualifying: Croatia, Switzerland secure spots

Croatia qualified for the 2018 World Cup finals after a 0-0 draw in the second leg of the playoffs against Greece on Sunday.

With a considerable advantage from Thursday’s 4-1 victory in Zagreb, Croatia easily held off the Greek hosts as they pressed for an upset.

Croatia came closest to scoring in the 42nd minute when Ivan Perisic’s powerful shot ricocheted off Greece’s left post, with goalkeeper Orestis Karezis well beaten.

Greece came closest to scoring in the 87th when Panagiotis Tachtsidis’s shot from inside the area was deflected by goalkeeper Danijel Subasic’s legs.

Greece also had two shots go just wide – one by Sokratis Papastathopoulos in the first half and another by Costas Mitroglou in the second – but otherwise did not threaten.

Greece’s coach Michael Skibbe said the first leg had done the damage.

“We had 12 good games [at the qualifiers] … on this level of football, it is not allowed to make mistakes like these,” said Skibbe, referring to Greece’s poor performance in Croatia. He added that Greece had been unlucky to miss defender Costas Manolas through suspension, and others through injury.

It is the third time that Croatia has qualified for the World Cup finals through playoffs after also advancing this way to the 1998 and 2014 tournaments. Croatia has never lost in the playoffs, including two qualifications for the European Championship.

Swiss lock up spot

Switzerland earned a spot at its fourth straight World Cup by holding Northern Ireland to a rain-soaked 0-0 draw on Sunday in a match that was preserved by a goal-line clearance in stoppage time.

Switzerland’s disputed penalty in the first-leg victory in Belfast made the difference and gave the Swiss a 1-0 aggregate victory.

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Switzerland’s players celebrate after the World Cup playoffs second leg soccer match between Switzerland and Northern Ireland. (Jean-Christophe Bott/The Associated Press)

In the final minutes on a muddy field in Basel, Switzerland defender Ricardo Rodriguez kicked a goal-bound header from Northern Ireland defender Jonny Evans off the line after a corner.

Rodriguez scored the penalty on Thursday in the first leg, and it was Evans’ brother, Corey, who was whistled for handling the ball that led to it.

“It was a privilege to be their coach and manager tonight,” Northern Ireland coach Michael O’Neill said, calling his team’s exit “a devastating moment.”

“It was decided by a really poor decision and a penalty that should never have been,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill shared tearful embraces with some of his players at the final whistle, and a long hug with Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic.

The Swiss dominated much of the first half Sunday but wasted good scoring chances, with centre forward Haris Seferovic most at fault.

A chilly, rain-soaked evening seemed ideal for the visitors to rise to the atmosphere created by their noisy fans. Conor Washington’s glancing header in the 54th minute came close to getting the goal that would have forced extra time.

With their spot in Russia secured, the 11th-ranked Swiss will be in the pot of second-seeded teams for the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 in Moscow.

All qualifying results

  • Ghana 1-1 Egypt
  • Congo 1-1 Uganda
  • Switzerland 0-0 Northern Ireland
  • Croatia 0-0 Greece

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CBC | Soccer News