SPLIT, Croatia - Croatia clinched an automatic berth in next year's World Cup finals in dramatic fashion as a late Fyodor Kudryashov own goal gave them a 1-0 home win over Russia in their crunch Group D qualifier on Sunday.
Croatia, the 2018 World Cup runners-up, jumped above Russia to top the standings on 23 points from 10 games, one more than the second-placed Russians who will head into the March playoffs.
Croatia dominated a match played in driving rain but a string of good saves by visiting goalkeeper Matvei Safonov and a waterlogged pitch kept them at bay before Kudryashov's clumsy 80th-minute touch delighted the home fans.
CROATIA MIGHT BE GOING TO THE WORLD CUP THROUGH A RUSSIA OWN GOAL pic.twitter.com/W6jC8DP2Yb— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 14, 2021
Needing a draw to qualify, the Russians defended with everyone behind the ball and soaked up intense pressure as the Croatians besieged their goal but failed to create clearcut chances.
Andrej Kramarić headed straight at Safonov in the ninth minute before Marcelo Brozović unleashed two long-range efforts, one sailing inches wide and the other drawing an acrobatic save from the visiting keeper. Safonov kept out a close-range Mario Pašalić header with a superb stop in the 47th minute and the Russians appeared to be home and dry before they were undone by Kudryashov's error.
With waves of Croatian attacks losing momentum on a difficult pitch, left back Borna Sosa floated in a hopeful cross from the left and Kudryashov bundled the ball into his own net after it bounced awkwardly in front of him.
The 2018 World Cup finalists are heading to the 2022 World Cup pic.twitter.com/j56ODAPpLY— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 14, 2021
Russia missed their only chance to salvage the game from their first fluent move in stoppage time, Vyacheslav Karavayev firing over the bar from 18 yards.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ed Osmond)