By Zoran Milosavljevic
ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatia hit top gear at crunch time to beat Iceland 2-0 in the return leg of their World Cup playoff on Tuesday and qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil despite playing nearly an hour with 10 men.
Striker Mandzukic gave the Croatians a 27th-minute lead before he was sent off for a vicious foul on Johann Gudmundsson but captain Darijo Srna sealed their berth in next year's 32-nation tournament shortly after the break, following a goalless stalemate in the reverse fixture in Reykjavik on Friday.
The result was also gratifying for Croatia's new coach Niko Kovac as he kept a seemingly rudderless ship afloat in the first leg after taking over from Igor Stimac, who was sacked following a poor run in which Croatia picked up only one point from their last four Group A games.
"I want to thank Stimac for steering us into the playoffs but most of all I wish to thank the players for leaving it all out there on the pitch tonight, hence I am very proud of them," Kovac told Croatian television after an action-packed match on a chilly night in Zagreb.
"These two crunch games they've played under my tenure have put their character and team spirit to the fore. I hope we can keep improving and make an impact in Brazil," he said.
For Iceland, whose coach Lars Lagerback failed to appear at the post-match press conference, defeat meant they missed out on reaching a major tournament for the first time and becoming the smallest country by population to reach the World Cup finals.
With patriotic songs blaring from the Maksimir stadium's sound system an hour before kickoff, Croatia came out firing and nearly took a first-minute lead when Mateo Kovacic blasted the ball over the bar from 12 meters.
Roared on by a passionate 25,000 crowd, the home team laid siege to Iceland's goal but were nearly caught cold at the other end when keeper Stipe Pletikosa parried a stinging Gylfi Sigurdsson shot, with Alfred Finnbogason well offside as he stroked the rebound into the net.
Iceland keeper Hannes Halldorsson kept out a swerving Srna free kick midway through the first half but was powerless in the 27th minute when Mandzukic showed a predator's instinct from close range, turning the ball home after Luka Modric deflected an Ivan Rakitic cross into his path.
The Bayern Munich hitman saw a stooping header turned around the post shortly afterwards but then gave Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers no choice but to send him off after a lunging, studs-up tackle into Gudmundsson's groin.
The home side were unfazed with being a man down, however, and Srna's sublime finish settled Croatian nerves as he rifled in a stinging low shot from the edge of the penalty box, cutting inside from the right flank after a darting run and pinpoint delivery by Kovacic.
Iceland could not launch a meaningful attack after falling two goals behind and rampant Croatia were only denied a bigger win by the inspired Halldorsson, who kept out several shots after being left exposed to lightning breaks by the home team.
The Croatians stretched their perfect record of reaching a major tournament through the playoffs to four out of four, while they also qualified for a World Cup or a European Championship for the eighth time in 10 attempts as an independent nation.
"I have a clear concept of how we should play and we have the players to implement the gameplan," Kovac told a news conference after getting a standing ovation from the crowd on the final whistle.
"I said several times that we only needed to improve our final pass to get the result and tonight we excelled in that department. We must always be direct and attack-minded, so now is the time to inject fresh blood and analyze where we can improve."
(Editing by Josh Reich)