ZAGREB, Croatia -- The Croatian fans had no doubt who was responsible for their team's qualification for the World Cup. For long periods they chanted the name of Niko Kovac, the coach who took over from Igor Stimac before the playoffs. The 42-year-old is a popular figure and, if nothing else, he gave a sense of togetherness to a Croatia side that had been falling apart to such an extent that it lost twice to Scotland.
"I knew this would be one of the hardest months in my life, but I never had it easy even before," Kovac said after 10-man Croatia outlasted Iceland 2-0 to advance to the World Cup. "Today was a demonstration of power and I have to congratulate my players for that. I'd give straight A's for all the players. When everyone gives their maximum, that's what it looks like. I hope this is only the beginning of something I would like to see from Croatia."
There had been talk that the Maksimir -- on its day one of the most intimidating atmospheres in world football - might be only half full, the result of disillusionment with the football federation in the wake of the recent match-fixing scandal and after the disastrous reign of Stimac plus an afternoon of heavy rain. As it was 22,600 fans braved the open stands -- themselves the result of a bungled attempt to redevelop the stadium -- which could be taken as a sign of the relationship between fans and national team being slowly rebuilt.
Certainly the support was vocal enough. Monday was the anniversary of the fall of Vukovar, something marked by the laying of candles in red and white covers along Ulica Vukovar and at various memorials in Zagreb, and so it's perhaps natural that this is a time of particularly patriotic feeling. There were chants of "Vukovar," and, during the Icelandic anthem, the unfurling of a large banner thanking Iceland for being the first nation to recognize an independent Croatia.
Still, it wasn't entirely clear whether the atmosphere created the performance or the performance the atmosphere. Croatia was almost entirely dominant from the off, forced a string of corners and took a 27th-minute lead as Ivica Olic's mishit shot from Ivan Rakitic's cross fell for Mario Mandzukic to sweep in at the back post.
Gylfi Sigurdsson had drawn Stipe Pletikosa into a superb reflex save, but that was an isolated moment of Icelandic pressure and, as Croatia continued to threaten, there seemed little prospect of anything other than a comfortable Croatia win. But then, eight minutes before halftime, Mandzukic senselessly thrust his studs into the thigh of Johann Gudmundsson and was sent off.
Quite apart from the difficulty that placed his team in for the rest of the game, it means he will be suspended for probably the first two group games at the World Cup.
Having come so far, having snatched a draw from 4-1 down against Switzerland, having beaten Albania when it had to at home, having clung on for a draw away to Norway, having held out with 10 men in the first leg, Iceland was simply beaten by a better side. Its players sat, shattered, on the damp grass at the final whistle, but soon trotted over to salute their thousands of traveling fans. For a nation of just 380,000 people, even to have got to this stage represents an almighty achievement.
"We really thoroughly analyzed how Iceland placed and my players knew exactly what they needed to do and followed the instructions admirably," said Kovac. "We were very careful about their long balls and set pieces; we didn't want to allow them any of those."
In that,Croatia was extremely successful. In other areas, less so.
"I also warned the players not to pick up cards," Kovac added.
Had Iceland been able to mount some pressure early in the second half, perhaps Croatia would have wobbled, but just two minutes after halftime, Darijo Srna, making a typical surge down the right, cuffed a shot across goalkeeper Hannes Thor Halldorsson and into the far corner. From then on, only Halldorsson stood between Iceland and a heavy defeat.
Going forward it never quite looked to have the class to break Croatia down, while its commitment to attack left it exposed at the back. With Luka Modric, heavily criticized by the local media before the game, happily thrusting through the inevitable spaces, Ivan Perisic, Mateo Kovacic and Danijel Pranjic were all denied by the film-director-goalkeeper, while Olic hit the bar with an overhead kick.
Better teams than Iceland might exploit the lack of bite at the back of the Croatia midfield, and finishing a true holder to take the defensive pressure off Modric and Rakitic must surely by Kovac's priority between now and the World Cup. Milan Badelj of Hamburg is perhaps an option, as is Ognjen Vukojevic of Dynamo Kyiv, who was left out because he was suspended for the first leg.
When Modric made a block tackle with quarter of an hour to go, the boom of ball on shin echoing around the stadium, the cheer that followed was acknowledgment of how unlikely an event it was.
There must be doubts too about the viability of Pranjic at left back. When Kovac sat at the back of midfield, five years ago, he would look to his left and see Pranjic charging forwards, but there are three vital differences between then and now.
For one thing, there isn't anybody of Kovac's quality at the back of midfield to cover; for another, Vedran Corluka, now a center back, then provided balance as a defensive right back; and Srna, then a right-sided midfielder, now plays with cavalier abandon from right back.
Still, there are six months now for fine tuning. Kovac's initial brief was simple: stop the rot and make sure Croatia made it to Brazil. He achieved that with some comfort; the second phase is to find a balance that might make his side competitive at the World Cup, and that begins now.
"I have a clear idea of what we want to do," said Kovac. "We have the players for it and things can only get better."