BELGRADE, Sept 6 (Reuters) - Serbia and their bitter Balkan rivals Croatia battled out a pulsating 1-1 draw in a highly-charged World Cup Group A qualifier on Friday played under tight security amid fears of crowd trouble.
The result knocked the Serbians out of contention for a berth in next year’s tournament in Brazil and secured at least a top-two finish for the Croatians, who host Belgium next month in a crunch clash in the race for an automatic berth in the finals.
Striker Mario Mandzukic fired the Croatians against the run of play in the 53rd minute, taking in his stride a superb pass by captain Darijo Srna and beating Serbia keeper Vladimir Stojkovic with a crisp low shot from 13 metres.
Roared on by the home fans who directed sporadic volleys of verbal abuse at the Croatians and let off fireworks, Serbia equalised midway through the second half when Aleksandar Mitrovic rose above his markers to head home a corner by substitute Miralem Sulejmani.
Serbia’s Nemanja Matic was sent off for a second bookable foul in the 75th minute and Croatia defender Josip Simunic was shown a red card for a vicious tackle on Sulejmani. German referee Felix Brych had to separate rival players who squared up to each other.
Midfielder Radosav Petrovic nearly grabbed a late winner for Serbia but Croatia keeper Stipe Pletikosa saved his close-range header following a flowing move down the left by the hosts.
Editing by Ed Osmond Editing by Ken Ferris