Veteran forward Ivica Olic scored, and recorded an assist, as Croatia held off Serbia in a Group A World Cup qualifying match at Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb on Friday, 2-0.
It was a match loaded with storylines, many of which had little to do with sports. Security was bolstered for the encounter between the two nations, who have a long history of conflict. It was the first match between the two independent nations following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
Both managers had previously spoken out about how the match should be important based on the World Cup implications, and not the political strife.
Serbia entered the match boasting of a strong group of defenders, but a mistake-prone match from the unit helped seal the victory for Croatia.
A poor pass from Serbian defender Aleksander Kolarov in the 23rd minute helped Mario Mandzukic set up the first goal. The Bayern Munich striker quickly found Ivan Rakitic, as the Croatians pounced on the Kolarov mistake. Olic took Rakitic’s pass along the right wing, and crossed to Mandzukic, who easily tapped the ball into an open net after questionable defending by Neven Subotic.
The Croatians would score again in the 37th minute when Olic chested the ball into the net off a fine bounced cross from Darijo Srna on a set piece. Chelsea star Branislav Ivanovic was late to cover Olic, and didn’t seem to get a clear read on the path of the ball, while goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic failed to pounce on a cross that was well within his reach.
Serbia had chances to get on the board in the second half, but struggled to penetrate the stingy Croatian backline. Serbia controlled possession for 54 percent of the match and took 10 shots, with four on goal, while Croatia took nine shots, with five on target.
With the victory, Croatia are guaranteed to at least hold a share of first place with Belgium, who face Macedonia, after the fifth round of fixtures. Belgium and Croatia entered Friday’s matches with 10 points each, but with Belgium ahead on goal difference.
The chances of Serbia qualifying for the World Cup appear slim, as Sinisa Mihajlovic’s side have just four points in five matches, with five remaining. Serbia will host Croatia on Sept. 6.
Next up for Serbia will be a home match against Scotland on Tuesday, while Croatia travel to Swansea to face Wales.