Guus Hiddink's competitive debut as Russia coach ended in disappointment as Croatia frustrated the hosts in a goalless draw in Moscow. For long periods of the teams' opening UEFA EURO 2008™ Group E qualifier, Russia looked second-best to a Croatia side playing their first competitive match under former player Slaven Bilić.
Hiddink's preparations were not helped by injuries to some key players – among them captain Aleksei Smertin – and suspensions to Vladimir Bystrov and Yuri Zhirkov which left the team without natural width. For his part, Bilić was without the three players - Darijo Srna, Ivica Olić and Boško Balaban - sent home for breaking a curfew yet it was the visitors who played the more assured football on a muddy Lokomotiv stadium pitch in the first period.
After beating world champions Italy in Bilić's first game, Croatia showed no shortage of composure, adapting better to the conditions albeit without creating many opportunities. The best chance of the first half fell to Ivan Klasnić after just two minutes but he failed to hit the target when presented with a clear sight of goal from the edge of the box.
Rapaić hits woodwork
Into the second half, however, the match suddenly burst into life. In the 50th minute Milan Rapaić struck the angle of post and crossbar with a free-kick and Klasnić put the rebound wide. Then Niko Kranjčar tested home goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev with a rising shot but when the ball subsequently fell to Eduardo da Silva, he drove his effort wide of the far post.
Russia's performance improved with Hiddink's decision to send on Pavel Pogrebnyak after 53 minutes. The FC Tom Tomsk striker stepped off the bench to score a late winner against Latvia in Hiddink's first game in charge last month and wasted no time making an impact after replacing Roman Pavlyuchenko. The tall front man twice fired wide after good work by Andrei Arshavin and in between, narrowly failed to reach a cross-shot from the same player after Stipe Pletikosa had done well to block a fierce Igor Semshov strike.
Having survived those scares, Croatia fought back and threatened a late goal at the other end. Substitute Mladen Petrić hit a shot that appeared to strike the hand of defender Sergei Ignashevich, before Klasnić sent an acrobatic volley wide as the stalemate prevailed.