Three years on from playing in the World Cup final, Croatia needed a late own-goal in a 1-0 home win over Russia to secure a spot at the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
Croatia bombarded the Russian goal throughout the game – with little success – in search of the win the 2018 runners-up needed to secure the automatic qualifying spot in Group H and consign Russia to the playoffs.
When the breakthrough came in the 81st minute it was from an unexpected source.
Croatia’s Borna Sosa hit a cross too deep, evading his teammates, but Russia defender Fedor Kudriashov directed the ball into his own net as he tried to control it.
“It was a difficult match from the beginning because of the rain. We never gave up, we were patient and I think we won deservedly. We are the best team in this group,” Luka Modric said.
Russia would have qualified with a draw, and had little ambition other than to survive the 90 minutes.
The loss was the first for new Russia coach Valery Karpin in his first seven games in charge – he later told Russian media he plans to stay on for the playoffs in March, when his side will be one of the six seeded teams.
The playoffs will sort 12 teams into four-team brackets playing for three World Cup places.
Third-placed Slovakia eased to a 6-0 win over Malta with a hat-trick from attacking midfielder Ondrej Duda while Slovenia beat Cyprus 2-1.
Meanwhile, Germany capped of a roller-coaster year by defeating Armenia 4-1, with North Macedonia grabbing second place behind the Germans in Group J to reach the World Cup playoffs.
Germany had already qualified for Qatar next November but rounded off 2021 in style thanks to Kai Havertz, Ilkay Guendogan’s double and Jonas Hofmann in Yerevan, with the likes of Manuel Neuer and Marco Reus rested in a rotated line-up.
Hansi Flick has presided over a record seven wins from his first seven games as Germany coach, just months after a disjointed side were dumped out of Euro 2020 in the last 16 under Joachim Low.
North Macedonia could be joining Germany at the World Cup after sealing a play-off spot courtesy of a 3-1 home win over Iceland.
Romania were also in with a chance of second spot going into the final round of group games but a 2-0 win in Liechtenstein was in vain.