ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (Reuters) - A revamped but businesslike Croatia topped their World Cup Group D as Ivan Perisic’s last-gasp goal helped them maintain their perfect record with a 2-1 win that also ended valiant Iceland’s tournament on Tuesday.
Perisic, along with Luka Modric the only players not rested, struck in the last minute to confirm their last-16 clash with Denmark after Milan Badelj’s second-half goal had been cancelled out by Gylfi Sigurdsson’s penalty.
Iceland, who had a handful of good chances and came close to a major upset as the night’s scenarios kept on changing, finish bottom of the group with one point but high in their thunder-clapping fans’ esteem.
Argentina took second place and will face France after beating Nigeria 2-1, a result that sent the third-placed African team packing.
“The fact we brought on nine new players is a proof of our strength in depth. We have to be proud of that. In a tournament setting, when you play intensive games it’s imperative to have strength in depth, and today we proved we have it,” said man of the match Badelj as Croatia look to at least emulate the squad who finished third in the 1998 World Cup.
Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson was philosophical. “We have not played many games like this against a strong team like Croatia and created as many chances as we did,” he said.
“We had the chance to get the goal we needed; it was a shock to concede one but we didn’t give up. That shows the character of the players; we left everything behind. There was no percentage left on our batteries in the last minutes.”
With qualification assured, coach Zlatko Dalic fielded the youngest Croatia team at a World Cup, making nine changes from the team who beat Argentina 3-0, and even if they struggled at times, his players were clinical despite Iceland’s sometimes impressive spells of dominance.
As expected, Croatia bossed the midfield and Iceland were content to hit on the break, playing with no fear.
The Iceland fans started the night’s first ‘Thunder Clap’ in support of midfielder Birkir Bjarnason, who briefly left the pitch with a bloodied nose after clashing with Marko Pjaca’s elbow.
Croatia’s possession lacked a cutting edge but, with a draw enough to top the group, they had little incentive, especially as Iceland looked toothless until news of Lionel Messi’s opening goal reached them.
They started to press higher, putting Croatia on the back foot.
Five minutes before the break, Alfred Finnbogason played a one-two with Sigurdsson but his first-time shot from just inside the box went wide.
On the stroke of halftime, Aron Gunnarsson fired an angled shot that was bound for the top corner until Lovre Kalinic tipped it away.
Croatia had their first clear chance when Milan Badelj’s missile crashed onto the bar six minutes into the second half. The midfielder was more accurate two minutes later as he thundered a volley into the back of the net to open the scoring.
Iceland faced a huge task as Nigeria almost simultaneously equalised against Argentina, but they reacted swiftly.
Sverrir Ingason forced Kalinic to another spectacular save, seconds before his header shaved the top of the bar.
Iceland were rewarded in the 76th minute when second-half substitute Dejan Lovren handled the ball and Sigurdsson rifled the resulting penalty into the roof of the net.
Iceland’s hopes were up again, but Perisic’s cool finish after he slipped into the left side of the area made sure there would be no fairy tale to tell for the Icelanders.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Neil Robinson