Croatia Coach Zlatko Lakic, who took over the team on Oct. 7, played down his own role in qualification.
“We have many quality players,” Lakic said. “I did not have to make much of an effort. I should remind you there was a coach before me, and what is happening now is the result of a joint effort.”
Lakic replaced Ante Cacic, who was fired the day after a draw at home with Finland and two days before the last group-stage qualifier, at Ukraine, which Croatia won in Lakic’s debut.
Greece Coach Michael Skibbe said the first leg had done the damage.
“We had 12 good games” at the qualifiers, Skibbe said.
He added, referring to Greece’s poor performance in Croatia: “On this level of football, it is not allowed to make mistakes like these.” He said Greece had had the bad luck to lose defender Costas Manolas to a suspension and other players to injury.
This is the third time, after 1998 and 2014, Croatia has qualified for the World Cup finals through playoffs. Croatia has never lost in playoffs, including two qualifications for the European Championship.
SWITZERLAND ADVANCES Switzerland will go to the World Cup with a 1-0 aggregate victory after left-back Ricardo Rodríguez sank Northern Ireland’s hopes in each game of their playoff, at each end of the field.
In each leg, the crucial incident involved one of Northern Ireland’s Evans brothers.
Switzerland needed only a draw on Sunday to advance to Russia, and a tense 0-0 result in rain-soaked Basel was preserved by Rodríguez with a goal-line clearance in stoppage time of Jonny Evans’s header.
“In the right moment, he was in the right place,” Switzerland Coach Vladimir Petkovic said of Rodríguez.
The draw meant that Switzerland’s disputed penalty for handball in the first-leg victory in Belfast on Thursday made all the difference.
Rodríguez scored that spot kick, when Corey Evans was penalized on a call that few agreed with.
Northern Ireland Coach Michael O’Neill said his team’s departure after a spirited second half on Sunday was “a devastating moment.”
“It was decided by a really poor decision and a penalty that should never have been,” O’Neill said. “We should still be playing extra time now.”
Northern Ireland arrived in Basel with aggression that had been strangely lacking in the home leg.
Still, Switzerland dominated much of the first half and should have sealed its place at a fourth straight World Cup much earlier.
Center forward Haris Seferovic was most at fault, failing to hit the target with two first-half headed chances and a late shot that was lofted high over the goal.
Though Petkovic declined to criticize Seferovic, who was booed by some fans when he was taken out, he acknowledged a regular weakness of his 11th-ranked team.
“We have to be more clinical in front of goal,” Petkovic said through an interpreter. “We had to suffer to the end, especially with this chance Northern Ireland had.”
In the first of four stoppage-time minutes, Jonny Evans rose at the far post to meet a cross that goalkeeper Yann Sommer misjudged, leaving himself stranded.
Rodríguez moved across the goal mouth toward the post and hooked the ball clear as he fell backward into the goal.
The Swiss will enter the pot of second-seeded teams for the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 in Moscow.
“We don’t really set limits for us — it could be even to the final,” said Petkovic, who should have his best players at their peak in Russia.