Croatia secured a hard-earned 1-0 win against Group 8 winners Bulgaria in Zagreb to edge their way into the UEFA EURO 2004™ play-offs. The Croatians finished level with Belgium on 16 points but progressed to Monday's draw by virture of their superior head-to-head record - their 4-0 home win against the Belgians in March bettering a 2-1 defeat in Brussels in September.
It was a deserved triumph, for the home side had much the better of the game - even hitting the woodwork on three occasions - but in the end they had to rely on a 48th-minute goal from substitute Ivica Olic to maintain their hopes of reaching next summer's finals in Portugal.
Mornar goes close
In the first half, Croatian midfield player Ivica Mornar went closest to opening the scoring, collecting a pass from Milan Rapaic in the 26th minute only for his shot to hit the crossbar. Ten minutes later Jerko Leko fired from distance but Bulgaria goalkeeper Zdravko Zdravkov did well to palm the ball away to safety.
After the break Croatia continued to dominate and took the lead in the 48th minute. The PFC CSKA Moskva striker Olic, who had replaced midfield player Darijo Srna at half-time, collected a brilliant pass from Dado Prso and blasted the ball into the net.
In the 54th minute Olic almost returned the favour by feeding Prso only for his header to clip the bar. Bulgaria also went close on several occasions, most notably when the lively Dimitar Berbatov fired just wide from distance. In the 88th minute Berbatov was once again on hand, nearly ruining Croatia's night with a header which rocketed a few inches over goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa's crossbar.
"I did not expect such serious resistance from the Bulgarians," admitted Croatia coach Otto Baric after the match. "It turned out that we can rise to the occasion, that we are a real team.
I think we now have a good chance against any team in the play-offs. The only one I would like to avoid is Spain."