Mateo Kovacic helped Croatia book their spot in the UEFA Nations League finals following a 3-1 victory over Austria on Sunday evening.
The 2018 World Cup runners-up pipped Denmark and France to top Group A1 after a hard-fought win in Vienna, with the Blues midfielder playing all but the final six minutes.
They will be joined at next summer’s finale by the Netherlands, who beat Belgium 1-0 to secure their place, plus either Portugal or Spain from Group A2, and Hungary or Italy from Group A3.
Croatia made the perfect start and took the lead after six minutes when Luka Modric found the near bottom corner with a sweet strike from just inside the box. However, parity was swiftly restored when Hoffenheim midfielder Christoph Baumgartner headed beyond Dominik Livakovic, who recently kept goal for Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League against Chelsea.
Livakovic was forced into a smart stop from Marko Arnautovic before Kovacic saw an effort blocked by an Austrian defender as the 28-year-old sought his first international goal since November 2020. It was a homecoming of sorts for the midfielder, who was born in Austria’s third-largest city Linz, just over 100 miles west of Vienna.
The hosts had some of the better chances as the game wore on, with Livakovic expertly keeping Arnautovic at bay again, before Croatia took the lead for the second time through Hajduk Split forward Marko Livaja, who neatly converted a delivery from Tottenham’s Ivan Perisic.
Within four minutes, the result was guaranteed as Dejan Lovren’s header powered into the back of the net to make it 3-1. Kovacic was then replaced by Mario Pasalic as the visitors saw the game out comfortably to move closer to a piece of elusive silverware after so many recent achievements.
It is the perfect preparation for the World Cup too, where they will be joined in Group F by Belgium, Canada and Morocco. For now, Croatia can celebrate topping a tricky UEFA Nations League group and look ahead to the final four showdown next June.
Elsewhere, Wales were beaten 1-0 by Poland in Cardiff to seal their relegation from Group A4 in the UEFA Nations League but Ethan Ampadu was not involved due to suspension.
Earlier in the day, Sam McClelland started for Northern Ireland Under-21s in a 1-1 draw away to Scotland. The Scots had won 3-1 in the reverse fixture three days earlier but this was a more balanced contest.
Norwich City winger Flynn Clarke put the hosts in front after just three minutes with an impressive finish before Nottingham Forest striker Dale Taylor levelled the scores a quarter of an hour later. McClelland, currently on loan at Barrow in League Two, played 75 minutes before he was replaced for the closing exchanges.