Soccer

Iceland secures 0-0 draw vs Croatia in playoff

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Iceland overcame the second-half sending-off of Olafur Skulason to hold on for a 0-0 draw against Croatia in the first leg of their World Cup playoff on Friday, keeping the tiny Nordic nation in contention for a place at its first major tournament.

After a tight first half, the Croatians took command in Reykjavik after Skulason was dismissed for a professional foul on Ivan Perisic in the 51st minute, but couldn't find a way past Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson and his packed defense.

Eduardo had a weak shot cleared away from near the goal line after barely a minute for Croatia, whose substitute Ivica Olic forced a fine reaction save from Halldorsson in the 55th.

The second leg is in Zagreb on Tuesday, with Iceland - with a population of around 320,000 - looking to become the least populous country to play at a World Cup. Trinidad and Tobago, with about 1.2 million inhabitants, currently holds the record from the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Around 10,000 Iceland fans were at the Laugardalsvollur national stadium in temperatures of 3 C (38 F) and swirling winds to witness the biggest football match in their country's history, and they cheered the blowing of the final whistle as if their team had won.

Iceland's fortunes have been turned around by Lars Lagerback, the former Sweden and Nigeria coach who was hired by Iceland in October 2010. From a low in the FIFA rankings of No. 131, the country is now No. 46 and has never been so close to qualifying for the finals of a major tournament.

Ninety minutes separate it from Brazil, but Croatia remains the heavy favorite despite failing to grab an away goal while playing against 10 men for almost half the match.

Olic wasted the best chance when he prodded straight at Halldorsson from six yards out, while Ivan Rakitic had a long-range shot easily saved and Perisic flashed an effort just wide of the post in the 83rd after Mario Mandzukic's nod-down.

The match marked the coaching debut of Niko Kovac, who stepped up from Croatia's under-21 team after Igor Stimac was fired for failing to guide the team directly to the World Cup.

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