Croatia emerged from Slovenia with a victory on the night and on aggregate to reach UEFA EURO 2004™ via the play-offs, and dash the ambitions of their neighbours.
Ten men victorious
The visitors were reduced to ten men on 59 minutes when Igor Tudor received his second yellow card, but they had dominated up to then and it was not long before Dado Pršo had scored his second goal of the tie, giving Croatia a lead they rarely looked like losing.
Having ended the 1-1 first-leg draw in Zagreb the happier team, Slovenia made only one enforced change, with leading scorer Ermin Šiljak's suspension leaving a space for Mladen Rudonja. Away coach Otto Baric rang the changes, though, not only replacing the suspended Ivica Olic with the recalled Tomislav Šokota, but bringing in Robert Kovac, Josip Šimunic, Darijo Srna, Milan Rapaic and Giovani Rosso for Stjepan Tomas, Jerko Leko, Ivica Mornar, Mato Neretljak and Dario Šimic.
Knowing they had to score to prevent an away-goals exit, Croatia attacked from the off. On seven minutes they came close to breaking the deadlock as Šokota struck a shot from the edge of the box only for it to rebound off the post. Niko Kovac then fired over from a similar position, but gradually Slovenia tightened matters in midfield.
It was still the visitors who had the greater fluency despite their many changes from Saturday, with Aleksander Knavs busy in the home defence and Slovenian captain Miran Pavlin having to work tirelessly in midfield. Srna was proving a potent threat on the Croatian right, but was denied the space to send in a truly incisive cross.
Only towards the end of the half did Croatia force more clear-cut chances. Two minutes from the interval, a Rapaic corner was headed on goal and saved by Mladen Dabanovic, but from only five metres out Rosso put the rebound over the bar. Having not had a shot in the first half, Slovenia introduced Adem Kapic to reinvigorate their midfield during the break.
However, Croatia had the better of the early second-half exchanges, only to find the Slovenian defence determined not to let them through. On 59 minutes, though, the visitors were reduced to ten men as Tudor's foul on Amir Karic earned the Juventus FC man a red card.
But if Slovenia thought they might take the initiative, within two minutes they were behind. Just as in Zagreb, it was the in-form Pršo who was on target, as he ran on to Šokota's through-ball and poked the ball past Dabanovic. Even after the goal, Croatia kept pushing, knowing another would leave Slovenia needing to score three. Substitute Ermin Rakovic did have an effort on goal for the home team on the 73-minute mark, but he headed Zlatko Zahovic's cross wide.
After that Pršo was withdrawn for Leko as Croatia sought to protect their advantage. And although Slovenia began to press forward, they were never allowed a clear sight of goal. Šokota was even able to break and curl the ball wide for the visitors, while Pavlin found his effort soon after blocked.
Time was ebbing away for Slovenia, and despite a late push aided by the advancing Dabanovic, they could not prise open the visiting defence and it was Croatia who booked their passage to Portugal.