Despite a stubborn defensive performance, Estonia succumbed to a late Niko Kovac header as Croatia ran out 1-0 winners in this UEFA EURO 2004™ Group 8 match. The game looked like mirroring the goalless draw between the two sides in Zagreb in September, but Otto Baric's side remained patient to take all three points in a tense finale.
Croatia made a dynamic start. Five minutes in and Mart Poom was culpable of an early mistake as he misjudged a floated ball into the box from Marko Babic, allowing Ivica Olic to sneak in. The striker's flicked header seemed goalbound, but was cleared off the line. Minutes later, only a timely interception from Liivo Leetma rescued the hosts.
After a shaky start, Estonia managed to settle down and even had some long-range efforts on goal of their own. Then, on 26 minutes, Andres Oper made rapid progress down the right flank, before squaring the ball into the box. His pass went just behind Indrek Zelinski and, after a moment of confusion, Stjepan Tomas managed to scramble the ball away.
Three minutes later and Dado Pršo's powerfully struck effort would have broken the deadlock at the other end, had it not been straight at Poom. A long-range strike from Olic flew narrowly over, before Poom was forced to save smartly from a Darijo Srna free-kick.
Estonia were more expansive after the break, but it was Croatia again who nearly scored. Milan Rapaic carried the ball to the by-line on the left, before pulling it back to Pršo, only for Raio Piiroja to make an effective blocking tackle.
Croatia continued to threaten and Rapaic had Poom scrambling with a free-kick that landed on the roof of the net. Substitute Tomislav Maric almost headed in Rapaic's cross with his first touch, but could not keep the ball down. Poom's confidence then grew and on 68 minutes he made a magnificent reaction save after Teet Allas had deflected Rapaic's corner towards his own net.
With the pressure mounting, the hosts finally buckled. On 76 minutes, Rapaic – by now the most influential player on the pitch – curled in an excellent cross from deep on the left. Poom came and missed and the ball fell to Kovac at the far post. He stooped to head, scrambling the ball in off the prostrate Piiroja.
Despite a late rally and a glorious added-time opportunity for substitute Vjatsheslav Zahovaiko, Estonia failed to find an equaliser. Indeed, only some smart saves from Poom and a glaring miss by Olic kept the score at 1-0. The result keeps Group 8 very much alive as Croatia leapfrogged their opponents into second place, just a point behind leaders Bulgaria.
'Deserved to score'
Croatia coach Otto Baric said: "It was a very difficult match but we didn't expect anything less. Estonia have conceded just one goal in five matches before tonight and that is proof of their class. We deserved to score and win this match." Estonia's Arno Pijpers added: "We were well prepared for the game, but they put us under enormous pressure."