Croatia beats Serbia 2-0 in tense WCup qualifier
ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) -Croatia beat Serbia 2-0 in a highly charged 2014 World Cup qualifier on Friday, the first match as independent states between the bitter Balkan foes since their war in the 1990s.
Serbian players were greeted with nationalist chants - including "Kill, Kill the Serbs'' - from the packed Maksimir stadium, where thousands of riot policemen were deployed to prevent trouble from the home fans. Serbian fans were banned from attending to prevent possible clashes.
Group A leader Croatia took the lead in the 23rd minute following a wayward pass by Aleksandar Kolarov that subsequently gave Mario Mandzukic a simple tap-in from three meters (yards) into an empty net. Ivica Olic made it 2-0 in the 37th, latching onto a curling cross from Darijo Srna.
The loss leaves Serbia a distant third behind Belgium in the group and unlikely to qualify for the tournament in Brazil. Scotland, Macedonia and Wales are the other teams in Group A.
The match was billed as historic, and much more than a football game, with tensions running high because of the wartime history between the two former Yugoslav nations.
The win triggered massive street celebrations and fireworks in many Croatian cities. Streets in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, were empty.
"This is a victory for the whole of Croatia,'' Olic said, while Srna added: "We all know what this means to our country.''
For Mandzukic, "it was fantastic, and I'll remember it all my life.'' Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic was meanwhile frank in his assessment of the match.
"We lost to a more experienced and better team,'' he said. "We conceded two cheap goals, we played better in the second half, we had chances, but we paid the price of inexperience. We went into the game with fear and that's what happened.''
Pre-match favorite Croatia controlled most of the possession, with Serbia failing to create any meaningful chances in the first half.
The first opportunity for the visitors came in the 47th minute after a powerful shot from Kolarov was blocked by Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa and Serbia forward Filip Djordjevic narrowly failed to connect with the rebound from close range. Djordjevic later missed Serbia's best opportunity, with Pletikosa diving to save in a one-on-one situation 15 minutes from the end.
For the hosts, Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric unleashed a shot from 18 meters (yards) that flew narrowly wide in the 51st minute. He and Olic then missed two good opportunities as Serbia pushed forward, and Croatia opted for counter attacks.
"This was an extremely tough game,'' Serbia defender Branislav Ivanovic said. "We all went into this game under immense pressure and I think it affected the young players. We lacked determination.''
Croatia coach Igor Stimac praised the support from the Croatia fans, "except for those derogatory chants'' and warned his players not to get carried away.
"We should not get too euphoric, we are only halfway to Brazil,'' he said.
Croatia's next match is away to Wales on Tuesday, while Serbia is at home to Scotland.
Jovana Gec contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia.