- Runners-up to Iceland in Group I, Croatia now face the play-offs
- The draw will be held on Tuesday 17 October in Zurich
- They have won their two previous play-off ties
Croatia's road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ European qualifying play-offs was not a straightforward one. After leading their group for much of the campaign, Croatia suffered a costly slip-up in their penultimate game, being held to a draw at home to Finland. This left them needing to emerge from the footballing cauldron of Kiev with victory over Ukraine to keep alive their dreams of reaching the global extravaganza, albeit not through the automatic route.
With a new coach, Zlatko Dalic, installed for this sink-or-swim encounter, and talismans Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic leading the charge, the Croats rose to the task and secured a convincing 2-0 win that will fill them with optimism heading into the play-offs. At least that is the way that Rakitic sees it, bullishly telling FIFA.com: "We want to be there in Russia."
Rakitic is a man who knows all about delivering when the heat is on. The 29-year-old has played at the World Cup and contested UEFA Champions League and Europa League finals, not to mention high-stakes La Liga showdowns. Accordingly, he was unperturbed by the trip to Kiev, always believing his side could get the job done. "We played really well," he said. "In the first half, with them being at home, they tried to pile the pressure on, but we knew that if we held firm in those moments, we'd have a good chance. We produced a really good second-half performance. We deserved the win and we'll battle to get through the play-offs next month."
Moreover, the Barcelona midfielder is far from the only Croatian player with big-game experience. With stars scattered across Europe's top leagues, Croatia * *have pedigree aplenty to call on ahead of November's matches.
"Is that experience important? You bet! It's a big help," said Rakitic. "It's much better to have that experience than not [laughing]. In Kiev, we were playing a do-or-die game in front of 70,000 fans and we never lost our cool, because we've already contested so many matches like that. Instead of being intimidated, it spurs us on."
Seeds of hope
The draw for the European play-offs will be held on Tuesday 17 October in Zurich. Croatia are in line to be one of the four seeds, although this will only be confirmed the previous day, when the updated FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is released.
"That only matters if you go on to qualify," Rakitic insisted with a laugh. "Seriously, though, on paper, if you know you're going to avoid Italy or Switzerland, that obviously gives you some peace of mind. But they're going to be two games played on a knife-edge and if we make it through, it [being seeded] will have been good news. If we don't, it clearly won't have been of much use."
As evidenced by these wise words, the No7, who has 86 caps to his name, is well aware of the danger of complacency. "In practice, you have to put the idea of being favourites – or not – to one side," he went on, before taking his leave on an equally thoughtful note: "The key will be to prepare as thoroughly as possible and to be fully focused on the pitch, irrespective of who our opponents are. What we want is to be there in Russia and we mustn't forget that."
Given this attitude, plus Rakitic and Co's confidence, quality and experience, the other teams will certainly be eager to steer clear of the Croats in Tuesday's draw.