Croatia must contest a play-off to qualify for Euro 2012 after finishing second
in Group F despite victory over Latvia.
Knowing only a victory would give them a chance of overhauling pool leaders
Greece, Slaven Bilic's men looked set to steal top spot when Greece fell behind
in Georgia and they eventually got on top of a stubborn Latvia side.
But news of Giorgos Fotakis' late leveller and Angelos Charisteas' subsequent
winner for the 2004 champions in Tbilisi hushed the Stadion Kantrida, and the
best they could have hoped for was to finish as the best group runner-up.
However, Sweden`s win against Holland ensured they took the best runners-up
berth, forcing Croatia into the play-offs.
That had looked an unlikely scenario for a 10-minute spell midway through the
second half when, after Georgia had taken the lead, Eduardo, the country's
second all-time leading scorer, and Mario Mandzukic put Croatia in control.
But Greece's comeback halted the celebrations that had started and quickly
switched attentions back to the play-offs.
Not to know how things were going to pan out and eager to stamp their mark on
proceedings as soon as possible, Croatia fashioned the first chance of the match
with less than 90 seconds on the clock when Eduardo's effort was tipped around
the post by Andris Vanins.
The early momentum continued and Mario Mandzukic hit wide from just inside the
six-yard box, Tottenham's Niko Kranjcar worked Vanins again and club team-mate
Luka Modric fizzed a long-range strike just over.
Darijo Srna then forced Vanins into a save with a well-taken free-kick as the
pressure almost reached breaking point for the visitors.
Eduardo twice more had the chance to release some of the tension building
inside the stadium, but failed on both occasions, first missing from the edge of
the box and then nodding Srna's cross over.
Vedran Corluka was forced out of the action with 30 minutes gone, and his
withdrawal seemed to stem Croatia's flow.
Latvia took advantage of the home side's reduced impetus, and Artjoms Rudnevs
registered their first effort with a left-footed effort than skipped just wide
three minutes before the break.
Aleksejs Visnjakovs took aim after the interval as Latvia enjoyed a rare spell
of dominance, although Modric threatened to end that when he took aim from 20
yards, only to find Vanins equal to his effort.
Kranjcar failed to find the target as Croatia regained control and Eduardo
missed another gilt-edged chance from six yards, while Rudnevs forced Stipe
Pletikosa to produce a fine block at the other end.
Finally, though, the deadlock was broken as Eduardo found his range.
Twenty-six minutes were remaining when Ivan Strinic whipped in a cross and the
Shakhtar Donetsk forward stooped to get his head to the ball and put his side in
Having defended so resolutely for so long, Latvia's resolve was clearly broken
and they found themselves a further goal behind six minutes later.
Srna, an impressive performer throughout, was the creator, sending in a ball
from which Mandzukic headed home his fourth international goal.
Josip Simunic had a chance to add a third but it mattered little by then as the
reality of the situation dawned on the Croatian players.