Uzbekistan beat Croatia 2-1 in Fujairah to seal second place in Group C, thus sealing a spot in the Round of 16 at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in UAE. Morocco, who beat Panama in the other game of the section, finish first and also go through, while Croatia –on a disappointing three points after their three games - have to wait to see how tomorrow’s results go.
Also of note, the night’s developments send Slovakia through to the knockout rounds from Group A as one of the best third-place finishers.
The first half was an entertaining affair, with both sides playing freely and attacking with spirit and commitment. The Uzbeks took the lead after only 14 minutes, a goal that Croatian defender Duje Caleta-Car will want to forget. He panicked in his own penalty area and, while trying to clear away a free-kick, could only push the ball into his own top corner. The look on keeper Marco Mari’s face seemed to say it all.
He was rescued after 28 minutes by his team leader and star player Alen Halilovic, who beat three defenders with a clever dribble and slotted home inside the far post. Halilovic was the best player on the pitch during the opening period. His passing, overall movement and panache inspired the entire Croatian team, and they were clicking in a way not previously seen here in UAE. His goal was the first conceded by the stingy Uzbeks in the tournament.
Ante Roguljic had a chance to put the Croats into the lead in the dying moments of the half, but his toe-poke after a mazy dribble was saved by Sarvar Karimov in the Uzbek goal.
With Halilovic on the bench for most the second half after being withdrawn by coach Ivan Gudelj, Croatia lost their spark. The Uzbeks pressed into attack and bossed the lion’s share of the period. And they got the goal their positive play warranted, when Jamshid Boltaboev asserted himself in the penalty area and fired a curling shot into the top corner of the net with 11 minutes to go.
Halilovic and his Croatian mates were sprawled on the pitch at the final whistle, as it will now take an unlikely series of events to see them avoid elimination. Uzbekistan, for their part, celebrated a hard-earned win and well-deserved passage. They will meet Central American upstarts Honduras in the next round.