Croatia dented its hopes of qualifying automatically for the 2022 World Cup after a 2-2 home draw with Slovakia in its Group H clash on Monday left them trailing Russia by two points in a two-team race for the top spot.
The Russians, which has 19 points from eight games, beat Slovenia 2-1 away to leapfrog Croatia, which came from behind twice against the Slovakians and had a late goal scrapped after a VAR check.
Both Russia and 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia are assured of at least a play-off berth as third-placed Slovakia and Slovenia in fourth have 10 points each with no chance of breaking into the top two.
Russia hosts Cyprus and Croatia visit Malta in the penultimate round of games on November 11 before the top two clash three days later in what is likely to be a decisive battle for an automatic berth for next year’s tournament in Qatar.
The Croatians dominated the opening half against a rugged Slovakia but were twice caught cold while visiting goalkeeper Marek Rodak pulled off several good saves at the other end.
Winger Ivan Schranz headed the Slovakians into a 20th-minute lead out of the blue as he powered in a delightful Marek Hamsik cross before Andrej Kramaric glanced in the equaliser five minutes later from Luka Modric’s corner.
The visitors struck again in the 45th minute through Lukas Haraslin who was given time and space to drill in a shot inside the near post, with Kramaric hitting the woodwork for Croatia on the stroke of halftime.
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Modric levelled in the 71st minute with a tame-looking free kick which went in through the wall before substitute Nikola Vlasic was denied a winner in the 83rd as his close-range effort was ruled out for Ivan Perisic’s offside in the build-up.
Perisic rued the home team’s missed chances and sloppy defending, having acknowledged they had no more room for error.
“The result is unrealistic as we dominated throughout and should have won, but there is no excuse for conceding two soft goals,” he told reporters. “It’s simple, we have to win the remaining two games to qualify.”
Coach Zlatko Dalic said: “We kept a clean sheet in the previous six games and tonight we conceded twice as we switched off at the back, while we missed too many chances.
“We have to move on. It’s still in our hands, it will be tough against Russia in the final match but we are hopeful of coming out on top.”