Ivan Perisic’s goal in the 90th minute crushed Iceland’s dreams of reaching the round of 16 at the World Cup as Croatia completed a sweep of its three matches in Group D with a 2-1 victory Tuesday in Rostov-on-Don.
The Strakarnir Okkar had gotten a lifeline through Gylfi Sigurdsson’s penalty that leveled the match in the 76th minute and could have advanced with another goal after Argentina had taken a 2-1 lead in the 86th minute against Nigeria in the other Group D match in St. Petersburg.
But Milan Badelj, who scored Croatia’s first goal in the 53rd minute, dispossessed Emil Halfredsson and sent Perisic through on the left, and Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson did not get enough of his right hand on the striker’s left-footed shot from 10 yards as it sailed inside the right post.
Croatia, which was already assured passage into the knockout round before kickoff, will now play Group D runner-up in Denmark on Sunday in Nizhny Novogorod. It will be the Vatreni’s first appearance there since their third-place showing in their maiden World Cup in 1998.
Iceland finished last in its group on one point — gained against two-time champion Argentina — despite three competitive matches, unable to duplicate its surprising run to the knockout round from two years ago when it reached the European Championship quarterfinals in its first major tournament in club history. The smallest country at the World Cup with a population of 340,000, Iceland again earned the affection of neutrals in addition to the Russian locals with its large traveling fan base and Viking clap that electrified crowds around their venues.
These teams were no strangers to each other after Iceland pipped Croatia in their World Cup qualifying group, avenging a two-legged playoff loss for a berth in Brazil four years ago. The result was a cagey affair for most of the first half. Croatia made nine changes to its starting XI from the side that flattened Argentina, leaving Perisic and playmaker Luka Modric, while Iceland made three, most notably restoring Johann Berg Gudmundsson after he had missed the Nigeria loss due to a calf injury.
The first eventful moment of the match came in the 12th minute when Birkir Bjaranason took a swipe in the face from Marko Pjaca, bloodying the Iceland midfielder and resulting in a stoppage of play that required treatment and a yellow card for the Croatian.
There was little in the way of scoring chances until the 27th minute when Hordur Magnusson nodded on a long throw from Aron Gunnarsson across the face of goal that went unanswered. Magnusson then headed a corner wide as the Strakarnir Okkar began to probe Croatia’s defense in search of the all-important first goal.
Just after the half-hour, Sigurdsson had a free kick from 30 yards that Lovre Kalinic comfortably caught inside the left post, and Bjarnason had a shot from 10 yards knocked away after it had fallen to him following a corner. Iceland fashioned two scoring chances before halftime, but Alfred Finnbogason went narrowly wide of the right post from 18 yards after working a 1-2 with Sigurdsson, and Gunnarsson’s curling right-footed effort was parried wide by Kalinic shortly before the whistle.
Badelj fired a warning shot for Croatia in the 51st minute when his long-range effort cannoned off the crossbar, and word got through shortly thereafter Nigeria had pulled level through a Victor Moses penalty to heap on the pressure on Iceland. The Vatreni broke through on a goal by Badelj, whose first-time volley from 15 yards off a deflection beat Halldorsson inside the left post.
Iceland quickly sought to counter, forcing Kalinic into a quality save by tipping Sverir Ingi Ingason’s effort over the bar. On the ensuing corner, Ingason skimmed the crossbar with an unmarked header. Croatia lifted Modric on 65 minutes, which helped Iceland gain a semblance of possession, and then went defensive by bringing on Dejan Lovren in the 70th minute.
But it was Lovren’s clear handball on a cross by Sigurdsson that was whistled by referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz that allowed Iceland a chance to pull level. After missing a penalty against Nigeria, Sigurdsson made no mistake with this one, lashing the spot kick down the middle and just under the crossbar to make it 1-1.
In the 88th minute, Argentina pulled ahead 2-1, setting the stage for Iceland to find its way through with a late strike, but Perisic’s quality effort ensured there would be no fairy tale ending for the Strakarnir Okkar.