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Scoreless draws enough for Switzerland, Croatia

The Associated Press

Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer leaps high to make a save during the World Cup playoff against Northern Ireland on Sunday in Basel, Switzerland.

The Associated Press BASEL, Switzerland (AP) — Switzerland earned a spot at its fourth straight World Cup by holding Northern Ireland to a rain-soaked 0-0 draw on Sunday in a match that was preserved by a goal-line clearance in stoppage time.

Switzerland’s disputed penalty in the first-leg victory in Belfast made the difference and gave the Swiss a 1-0 aggregate victory.

In the final minutes on a muddy field in Basel, Switzerland defender Ricardo Rodriguez kicked a goal-bound header from Northern Ireland defender Jonny Evans off the line after a corner.

Rodriguez scored the penalty on Thursday in the first leg, and it was Evans’ brother, Corey, who was whistled for handling the ball that led to it.

“It was a privilege to be their coach and manager tonight,” Northern Ireland coach Michael O’Neill said, calling his team’s exit “a devastating moment.”

“It was decided by a really poor decision and a penalty that should never have been,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill shared tearful embraces with some of his players at the final whistle, and a long hug with Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic.

The Swiss dominated much of the first half Sunday, but wasted good scoring chances, with center forward Haris Seferovic most at fault.

A chilly, rain-soaked evening seemed ideal for the visitors to rise to the atmosphere created by their noisy fans. Conor Washington’s glancing header in the 54th minute came close to getting the goal that would have forced extra time.

With their spot in Russia secured, the 11th-ranked Swiss will be in the pot of second-seeded teams for the World Cup draw on Dec. 1 in Moscow.

Now the challenge for arguably Switzerland’s most talented team in decades is to go beyond the last 16 at a major tournament.

Croatia cruises by Greece

Meanwhile in Athens, Croatia also qualified for the finals after a 0-0 draw in the second leg against Greece. With a considerable advantage from Thursday’s 4-1 victory in Zagreb, Croatia easily held off the Greek hosts as they pressed for an upset.

Croatia came closest to scoring in the 42nd minute when Ivan Perisic’s powerful shot ricocheted off Greece’s left post, with goalkeeper Orestis Karezis well beaten.

Greece came closest to scoring in the 87th when Panagiotis Tachtsidis’s shot from inside the area was deflected by goalkeeper Danijel Subasic’s legs.

It is the third time that Croatia has qualified for the World Cup finals through playoffs after also advancing this way to the 1998 and 2014 tournaments.

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