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Switzerland and Croatia seal World Cup places through play-offs


Switzerland and Croatia seal World Cup places through play-offs

Switzerland and Croatia seal World Cup places through play-offs

Switzerland and Croatia guaranteed their places at the World Cup finals in Russia next year by successfully defending first leg leads in their respective play-offs on Sunday.

A goalless home draw with Northern Ireland ensured a 1-0 aggregate victory for Switzerland, who survived a huge injury-time scare as Jonny Evans had a header cleared off the line in a match they otherwise dominated.

Croatia arrived in Greece leading 4-1 from their home leg and a 0-0 draw in Athens saw them through by the same score on aggregate. Their play-off record to major finals is now a perfect five from five.

On Monday Italy attempt to overturn a 1-0 deficit at home to Sweden. Ireland and Denmark conclude the European play-offs on Tuesday after Saturday’s goalless draw in Copenhagen.

The Swiss won Thursday’s Belfast opener with a controversial penalty by Ricardo Rodriguez but could not find the net again despite dominating the majority of the match in Basel. Regardless, they qualify for their 11th World Cup and fourth in succession.

Northern Ireland rarely looked capable of levelling the tie but Evans seemed to have kept their dream alive of a first World Cup appearance since 1986. Rodriguez was again the thorn in their side, however, as he was perfectly placed after goalkeeper Yann Sommer misjudged a cross.

“Ultimately we’ve gone out to a poor decision in the first leg,” Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill told Sky Sports. “Our performance and reaction tonight was fabulous.

“The players are devastated, but I couldn’t be more proud of them and the effort that they gave.”

The hosts soon took control of proceedings on a St Jakob Park pitch left sodden by torrential rain and cutting up quickly.

Haris Seferovic spurned two headed opportunities when well placed and visiting keeper Michael McGovern made a smart save with his foot from Steven Zuber as the Swiss missed the chance to make the tie safe.

“Quite honestly, in the end no one is interested how this game against Northern Ireland was,” midfielder Granit Xhaxa said in first television interviews. “We have the World Cup ticket, that’s what counts. I’m just happy that we’ve done it.”

Jamie Ward broke against the run of play for Northern Ireland in the 55th minute and his precise cross was nodded agonisingly wide by Conor Washington with Sommer beaten.

It was the Swiss who remained the more dangerous on the break in the closing stages but Northern Ireland will look at Evans’ header and wonder what might have been.

Greece had a massive challenge to overturn a three-goal deficit in Athens and the gaps in the stands suggest their fans did not believe a miracle would be forthcoming.

The hosts had plenty of the ball but Croatia were resolute in defence to reach the World Cup finals for a fifth time. Sokratis sent a shot wide from the edge of the box for the Greeks but it was Croatia who went cloest in the first half when Ivan Perisic struck the post from distance.

“Russia, here we come! #BeProud,” the Croatian team tweeted alongside a picture of players and staff celebrating.

Panagiotis Tachtsidis finally called Croatia keeper Danijel Subasic into action – in the 87th minute – but his volley was too central to threaten. Greece’s failure to progress ends a run of two qualifications from 2010 and 2014.

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