Croatia, Switzerland qualify for World Cup
PIRAEUS / BASEL
Croatia and Switzerland book their places in the 2018 World Cup on Nov. 12 by edging their opponents in the playoffs of the qualification stage in Europe.
Croatia held Greece to a 0-0 draw in the second leg of their playoff in Piraeus for a 4-1 win on aggregate, while Switzerland secured a 1-0 aggregate playoff victory against Northern Ireland with a 0-0 second-leg draw.
Zlatko Dalic's Croatia will be playing in its fifth World Cup in Russia next year, having only once failed to qualify in 2010.
"We had a good match in Zagreb but it was difficult here. If we had won 1-0 (in the first leg) it would have been very difficult tonight," said Croatia coach Dalic, who only took over from the sacked Ante Cacic last month.
"We are a very good team and it would not be just for us not to go to Russia." A strong defensive performance, especially in the second half, was enough for Croatia to leave the Karaisiakis Stadium with a comfortable victory over the two legs after winning 4-1 on Thursday.
"It was a tough match for us. We did not play at our level, but more important is the result," said Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric.
"Greece played a good game tonight, it pushed us, but there was no serious opportunity [of a comeback]."
Greece coach Michael Skibbe dropped half of his players from the disastrous first-leg showing in Zagreb, and the return of Roma defender Kostas Manolas kept Croatia striker Nikola Kalinic in check.
"Unfortunately we had a very bad performance in Zagreb three days ago and we paid for it," said German Skibbe.
"We then made too many mistakes. Tonight we were excellent and Croatia were not good. The previous match happened the other way around."
In Basel, Vladimir Petkovic's side wasted numerous first-half chances as the Northern Irish stayed in the tie, but Ricardo Rodriguez's controversial first-leg penalty in Belfast proved enough for the Swiss to reach their fourth consecutive World Cup.
"It was very hard, there was a lot of pressure," Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer told television channel RTS.
"Everyone said it was almost done, but against teams like that it's a fight. I'm very excited we've achieved our goal.
"It's unfortunate that we were not more efficient because it would have been easier."
Northern Ireland fell short in their bid to reach a first finals since 1986.
"Ultimately we've gone out to a poor decision in the first leg," Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill told Sky Sports, after a harsh handball decision against Corry Evans saw Rodriguez score the only goal of the tie.
"Our performance and reaction tonight was fabulous. We were the better team.
"We had to ride our luck at times but we were pushing until the 94th minute. The players are devastated but I couldn't be any prouder."