Croatia seal their place in the UEFA Nations League Finals with a 3-1 win over Austria in Vienna which also consigns the Austrians to relegation from League A.
The visitors took the lead early when Nikola Vlasic found space in the inside right channel and pulled it back to Luka Modric. Modric made one defender disappear with a magical first touch before slapping his shot past Heinz Linder.
Austria struck back almost immediately. Marcel Sabitzer cut back onto his right foot and curled a low cross towards goal, which Christoph Baumgartner eased into the goal with a stooping header.
It was a tight contest from there until Marcelo Brozovic limped off with a knee injury.
At that point, the home side produced a host of chances and probably should have gone in at half time with a lead.
Two moments of real quality in the second half changed everything for Croatia.
First Ivan Perisic floated a cross towards substitute Marko Livaja who headed back across goal to give the visitors the lead again.
They doubled their advantage four minutes later when Austria’s defence was completely bamboozled by a short corner, leaving Dejan Lovren free to head home Lovro Majer’s cross.
The home side had looked dominant until Livaja’s goal, after which they fell to pieces and never looked like pulling themselves together again.
TALKING POINT – WOULD CROATIA HAVE BEEN WORLD CUP CONTENDERS?
Runners-up in 2018, and winners of a very tough group in the UEFA Nations League this year, it’s worth asking just how far this Croatia side could have gone at the 2022 World Cup, had they qualified.
In the opening period of the match, Croatia played impressive, flowing football but the injury to Brozovic disrupted their rhythm. Even so, the visitors had the players necessary to go up a gear in the second half and pull off a win.
With France struggling, it seems fair to imagine that Croatia would have been better placed to shine in Qatar.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH – IVAN PERISIC (CROATIA)
The visitors needed inspiration from one of their big names, particularly in the absence of Marcelo Brozovic.
In the first half Perisic was solid, but in the second he really shone. Perisic made a perfect cross for Livaja to score the vital second goal for Croatia and played a part in the third.
He continued to shine as the half wore on, showing no signs of fatigue despite his age and workload.
By the end of the match he had completed six dribbles, and had three shots. Both were the highest marks for any Croatian player.
Even in stoppage time, Perisic was surging into the Austrian box to very nearly score a fourth for the visitors. His shot clipped the bar and went over, but it would have been a deserved goal after a game-changing display.
Austria: Lindner 7, Danso 8, Schlager 7, Posch 7, Seiwald 6, Arnautovic 7, Alaba 6, Sabitzer 6, Gregoritsch 6, Trimmel 6, Baumgartner 7. Subs: Onisiwo N/A, Saracevic N/A, Schmid N/A, Wober 6, Lainer 6
Croatia: Livakovic 7, Barisic 6, Gvardiol 6, Lovren 6, Stanisic 6, Kovacic 7, Brozovic 5, Modric 6, Perisic 8, Budimir 6, Vlasic 6. Subs: Livaja 7, Sosa 6, Pasalic N/A, Kramaric N/A, Majer 7
6′ GOAL CROATIA – Vlasic surges down the inside right channel and finds Luka Modric who removes a defender with a magic touch before he rifles home his second goal of the campaign.
9′ GOAL AUSTRIA – Mere minutes after Croatia’s opener, Austria hit back. Sabitzer cuts back onto his right foot and fires in a low cross that Baumgartner guides goalwards with a stooping header.
24′ BAUMGARTNER SHOULD HAVE SCORED – Lovely interplay from the Austrian attack slips Baumgartner through one on one with the Croatian keeper, but his shot is pushed wide.
35′ BAUMGARTNER MISSES OPEN GOAL – Livakovic comes for a high ball and drops it after colliding with Baumgartner. The striker has the chance to whip it into the empty net, but his quick attempt goes over the bar.
39 ‘ HUGE CHANCE AUSTRIA – Trimmel finds space down the right and pulls it back across the face of goal. Sabitzer arrives but his shot is blocked, as is Seiwald’s follow-up shot.
45′ ARNAUTOVIC DENIED – A brilliant save by Livakovic parries Arnautovic’s curling shot out of danger.
68′ GOAL CROATIA – A brilliant run from Mateo Kovacic gets Croatia forward. Possession comes to Perisic and he lifts a cross towards the far post for Marko Livaja to head home.
72′ GOAL CROATIA – Dejan Lovren is completely unmarked as he heads home Majer’s cross from a short corner.
73’ PERISIC OFF THE BAR – Austria are falling apart and Ivan Perisic goes close to making it 4-1.