ATHENS (Reuters) - Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic heaped praise on his players after they saw off Greece with the minimum of fuss in their playoff tie on Sunday to seal a place at the 2018 World Cup.
The impressive Croatians held Greece to a 0-0 draw at the Georgios Karaiskakis stadium in Sunday’s second leg in Athens to complete a 4-1 aggregate victory – making it the fifth time they have qualified for the global showpiece since gaining independence in 1991.
“Congratulations to my players, it was a great game tonight, full of tension, and we’ve achieved what we had set out to do and are going to Russia,” said a delighted Dalic.
“We played a truly awesome game in Zagreb in the first leg, tonight here it was much harder. But it was never important for me who would be our opponents in this playoff, because I was convinced that we would win whoever we played against.”
Having done the hard work four days ago by winning 4-1 in Zagreb, Dalic’s team finished the job comfortably against the much-improved Greeks who were full of attacking intent and tenacious tackling but lacked creativity up forward.
For all the home side’s possession and hard work, Croatia came closest to scoring with Ivan Perišić hitting the post in the first half.
Dalic said his team oozed quality and that he had benefited from the work of predecessor Ante Čačić, who was sacked last month after a run of poor results.
“I did not have to do much. I mostly talked to my players,” he said. “This qualification is also as much down to the previous coach and comes as a result of his work.
“We are a very good team and failure to qualify for the World Cup was not an option.”
Greece boss Michael Skibbe pledged to continue in his role.
Despite the deflation of missing out on Russia, their improvement over the qualification campaign gave the German hope.
“This is a sad day for us and of course it’s difficult, because we have missed out on the World Cup, but I will stay on here,” Skibbe said.
“I’m very happy with the team’s progress over the last 14 months. We have played really well overall in 12 matches, unfortunately we had a real below-par performance in Zagreb and we have paid dearly for that.”
Skibbe pointed to bad luck with injuries to skipper Vasilis Torosidis, Petros Mantalos and Christos Donis, as well as the controversial suspension of Kostas Manolas for the crucial first leg of the playoff, essentially stripping Greece of four of their top players.
“These absences influenced the chemistry of the team, we should not forget that,” he said.
“Tonight we were excellent and Croatia were average. As I said, we have paid for the mistakes we made in Zagreb, mistakes which you simply can’t make at this level.”
Reporting by Graham Wood; Editing by Christian Radnedge / Ian Ransom