Croatia 2 - 0 Serbia: Croatia take bragging rights

Serbia's Ivan Radavanovic is challenged by Ivan Rakitic and Mario Manzukic of Croatia in Zagreb last night.  Picture: Reuters
Serbia's Ivan Radavanovic is challenged by Ivan Rakitic and Mario Manzukic of Croatia in Zagreb last night. Picture: Reuters
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CROATIA proved to be far too strong for bitter rivals Serbia in a Balkan grudge match in Scotland’s World Cup group and took a step closer to Brazil.

Scorers: Croatia: Mandzukic (23), Olic (37)

Despite a frenzied atmosphere on the streets of Zagreb and no away fans being allowed inside the Maksimir Stadium, both sets of players were on their best behaviour in the Group A clash, which was the first time the two nations had played each other since their bitter 1990s war. Croatia won the match without ever hitting anything like top form and Serbia appeared to lack belief they could ever take anything from the match.

If the match was far from a classic, the atmosphere in the stands more than made up for it. From the moments the visitors first came out to warm up until the inevitable wild booing of their national anthem, there was poison in the air. Memories of that war remain very fresh and pleas from the PA to respect the Serbs’ anthem were always going to be highly optimistic.

From an enormous banner that stated ‘We didn’t die for our freedom for nothing’ to a non-stop backdrop of nationalistic chanting against the Serbs, this was a deeply uncomfortable night for them. And they didn’t help 
themselves on the pitch either.

Goals by Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic and Wolfsburg’s Ivan Olic were the least the hosts deserved, although they were gifted both goals by a Serbian side who seemed unable to defend despite including Manchester City defender Aleksandar Kolarov and Chelsea stopper Branislav Ivanovic.

Scotland will take heart from just how bad the Serbian defence looked and also the fact that Kolarov’s booking last night means he is now suspended for their clash with Scotland on Tuesday.

But both nations will breathe a huge sigh of relief that the game passed without incident and both managers were united after the game in praising both sets of players for keeping their cool in the hostile atmosphere.

Croatia boss Igor Stimac said: “There was a great atmosphere and we couldn’t have asked for more. We have sent out a very clear message. Let’s forget the past. Both nations have a very bright future ahead of us.”

His Serbian counterpart, Sinisa Mihajlovic admitted he was pleased that the match had passed off without incident. He said: “The players gave a very good example of how to behave. The atmosphere was real football. This game I would like to play every week.

“Croatia are in the top ten nations in football. You think it’s easy to attack Croatia in Zagreb? Not even England could. We lost to a better and more experienced team. We play Scotland in a few days. We have to try and regroup and try and pick up as many points as possible in the remaining games now.”

Croatia dominated the match thanks to excellent displays by Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. The Sevilla man had a hand in the opener midway through the first half when he linked up with Niko Kranjcar on the right to cut the ball back to Mandzukic, who could hardly miss right in front of goal. The move started when Kolarov needlessly gave the ball straight to the Croats from their own free kick.

It went from bad to worse for the Serbs when the Croats doubled their advantage eight minutes from half-time. A bread and butter free kick from the right was whipped over by captain Darijo Srna and it was bundled in at the back post by Ivica Olic.

Serbia almost made a game of it right after the restart when Stipe Pletikosa saved a Kolarov effort and Filip Duricic stabbed the rebound wide of target and they certainly improved after the break, but it didn’t stop the home fans from cheering ‘oles’ as they started to play keep ball. Rakitic produced a wonderful piece of skill when he nutmegged substitute Filip Dordevic and saw his shot saved by goalkeeper Zeljiko Brkic.

Serbia’s last hopes were extinguished when Pletikosa made a brilliant double save from Duricic and Filip Dordevic, with the second one a superb point blank stop. Mihajlovic turned away in despair. In joyous contrast, Croat boss Stimac demanded the home fans crank up the noise further, as if that were possible. It was the cue for the home fans to begin their celebrations that would last long into the night.

Croatia: Pletikosa, Srna (Lovren, 82), Strinic, Kovacoc, Corluka, Rakitic, Simunic, Modric, Olic (Vukojevic, 83), Kranjcar (Vida, 63), Mandzukic.

Serbia: Brkic, Ivanovic, Subotic, Nastasic, Kolarov, Tosic, Radovanovic, Ignjovski (Petrovic, 76), Stevanovic (Tadic, 56), Scepovic (Dordevic, 8), Duricic.