Croatia end Iceland's dreams of knockout stages with Group D-winning victory
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- Three quick thoughts from Croatia's 2-1 win over Iceland in their group-stage finale, which sees Luka Modric & Co. finish atop of Group D.
1. Croatia win Group D, end Iceland dreams
This World Cup has so far offered most things that we want to entertain: goals, brilliant play, occasional incompetence and upsets. It needed tension though, and the last games of Group D certainly provided that, with gusto.
Iceland were so very close to doing the implausible and qualifying for the knockout stages, but Croatia's 2-1 win sees them on the plane home, finishing behind Argentina, who snatched their own win by the same scoreline to take the second spot.
Milan Badelj put Croatia ahead, before Iceland were given hope by a Gylfi Sigurdsson penalty, only for a late Ivan Perisic goal to kill them off.
Croatia had looked limp in the first half, the nine changes made to their starting XI producing a team that looked like it hadn't played together before -- which made sense, because they hadn't. Modric and Ivan Perisic were the only survivors from the 3-0 win over Argentina. And it showed; they were disjointed and the flow of their play was nowhere near the levels of that last game. Iceland had a number of fine chances, Lovre Kalinic forced into a number of fine saves, particularly from Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson.
But after the break they looked much more cohesive, and took the lead with a neat piece of teamwork. They moved the ball well down the left, Josip Pivaric's cross took a deflection and floated towards the onrushing Badelj, who did well to get his hips over the ball and fired his shot into the turf, bouncing it into the roof of the net.
Iceland kept coming, though, and with 15 minutes remaining they were level. Dejan Lovren had been on the pitch as a substitute for only a few minutes when he gave away a penalty with a handball. Sigurdsson, whose spot kick in the previous game is quite possibly still rising, nervelessly launched this one into the roof of the net. Game on.
They threw everything they had at Croatia, but as the minutes ticked away the group winners showed their superiority. They kept Icelandic punches at arm's length, and eventually delivered a knockout blow.
Perisic's run down the left flank took him into the area, and he lashed a brilliant shot into the top corner.
In the end, the Iceland players sank to their knees, some of them with tears in their eyes and the blank look of devastation on their faces. But, of course, they have nothing to be ashamed of.
2. Dalic's rotations pay dividends
It was entirely understandable that Zlatko Dalic chose to rest so many players for this game. The hard work was, after all, done against Argentina, their victory there and against Nigeria assuring them not only of qualification for the second phase, but almost certainly the top spot too.
But it was also a gamble. Through to the second phase they were, but there is plenty to be said for maintaining the momentum that comes from such impressive victories in the opening couple of games. By ripping up his team and starting again, he risked halting that momentum.
By keeping Modric and Perisic in the side there was at least a nod to keeping this game alive, two safe pairs of hands among the relative novices. Still, when players like Mateo Kovacic are among your second string, it's certainly easier to have confidence that they'll be able to cope.
When it came down to it, one of those safe hands sealed things, Perisic's late goal a classic example of the driving winger's oeuvre.
It could have gone badly wrong, but Dalic will congratulate himself on a job well done, and a plan carried out to perfection. Most of his first-choice players will be rested for their encounter with Denmark on Sunday, and his backups put away this dangerous Iceland side.
3. Knockout rounds a step too far for Iceland
Ultimately, this was just one step too far for Iceland. There's an obvious danger of patronising the smallest nation ever to qualify for a World Cup, their population of around 335,000 more than four times smaller than Trinidad and Tobago, the next on the list.
But it was an astonishing achievement to even be here, never mind taking Argentina and Nigeria, two teams of obvious pedigree and infinitely more World Cup experience, so close for a spot in the knockout rounds.
Their progression to the quarterfinals of the European Championships was halted by France, a team of obviously superior technical ability. So it was here, and while this exit from the competition was not quite as emphatic as the 5-2 hammering handed out by the French, the difference in touch, passing and in the end finishing was clear. Sometimes, football isn't any more complicated than the best set of players eventually prevailing.
But they were so very close. Argentina won in St Petersburg, but it came down to the last. Nobody hands out prizes for nearly getting there, but hopefully they will be able to carry the intangible satisfaction of this monumental effort as reward enough.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.