BAKU • The wave of international retirements since Croatia's fairy-tale run to last year's World Cup final told on Monday night as they were held to a surprise 1-1 draw by lowly Azerbaijan in Baku.
Zlatko Dalic had named a strong side to face 109th-ranked Azerbaijan, including Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Dejan Lovren, although Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic was missing owing to his request to resolve his club future, while Mateo Kovacic failed his fitness test.
Dalic's players took an early lead through a Modric penalty, but the seventh-ranked team failed to add to that advantage, despite having 21 attempts at goal.
Bruno Petkovic, who has replaced the retired Mario Mandzukic as their first-choice striker, was particularly culpable.
The rock-bottom hosts had suffered four losses in as many games in Group E of the Euro 2020 qualifiers, but nearly gave Wales a fright in Cardiff three days earlier as they narrowly lost 2-1.
The Azerbaijanis built on that encouraging performance to finally earn their first point through Tamkin Khalilzada's brilliant equaliser, leaving the Croatia coach to bemoan their wayward finishing.
"It wasn't a good match for us, especially the second half when we didn't take any chances," he told national broadcaster HRT.
"We didn't score the second goal... And now we have to go on."
Group leaders Croatia now face a dicey run-in. Dalic's men may be ahead of fourth-placed Wales by four points, but Ryan Giggs' players have played a match fewer, while second-placed Slovakia are now just a point behind on nine after their 2-1 victory at Hungary.
The Hungarians sit third in the table, also a point adrift, with Croatia due to meet them next month at home.
After hosting Hungary, Croatia have to travel to Wales before welcoming Slovakia, with another friendly game at home against Georgia rounding off their matches in November.