Russia have missed out on an automatic place at the 2022 World Cup in agonizing fashion, losing their deciding final qualifying fixture in Croatia courtesy of an own-goal with just nine minutes remaining.
In the toughest challenge of their ten-match qualifying campaign, Russia had been warned to expect an avalanche of pressure from 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia amid an intimidating atmosphere in Split.
Croatia broke Russian hearts by knocking the hosts out of that World Cup on penalties in the quarterfinals, and they were eager to consign their main rivals, who were top of the group by two points before kick-off, to a play-off place in the quest to reach the 2022 edition.
They were thwarted for much of the game by Matvei Safonov, the 22-year-old Krasnodar goalkeeper who produced a string of eye-catching saves as Croatia had nine attempts at goal without reply during the first half.
— Сборная России (@TeamRussia) November 14, 2021
That one-sided pattern continued immediately after the restart. On a pitch so wet it was all-but waterlogged, Andrej Kramaric, who scored the first goal in that 2-2 draw at the World Cup, sent a shot over the bar before Safonov stopped former Chelsea midfielder Mario Pasalic’s header with an excellent reaction save.
The game had become something of a lottery on a pitch so sodden the ball barely moved cleanly along its turf.
The patchy surface made life even more complicated for Safonov, an international newcomer who only made his senior international debut in June and was responsible for organizing a defense which frequently appeared to comprise six of his teammates.
Even for a team with a distributor as distinguished as former Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric in their midfield, Croatia, too, struggled in the conditions.
Zlatko Dalic’s players looked to have run out of ideas during the final quarter of the game, and their 81st-minute winner was the result of a cross that seemed to be hit more in hope than expectation by Borna Sosa from the left flank.
Luckless Antalyaspor defender Fyodor Kudryashov, who had a fine game and appeared to be carrying an injury, could only divert the danger into the corner of Safonov’s net, sending the ball squirming low beyond the goalkeeper’s desperate dive.
Dalic was in tears at the end, sinking back into his seat while his players celebrated ecstatically ahead of him.
The result is the first real setback of an impressive start to his tenure for new Russia manager Valeri Karpin, who had overseen five wins and a draw since succeeding Stanislav Cherchesov in July.
Tactician Karpin played for his country as a midfielder in the 1994 and 2002 World Cup tournaments. Now he will need to negotiate a play-off campaign to reach the finals for a third time, his side crestfallen at the end after a brave display that was so nearly enough to make it mission accomplished at the first time of asking.
“It was a difficult match from the beginning because of the rain,” acknowledged Croatia captain Modric.
“We never gave up, we were patient and I think we won deservedly. We are the best team in this group.”
The draw for the play-offs will be held on 26 November, with the ties set to take place in March 2022.