ZAGREB: World Cup runners-up Croatia rounded off a rebuilding mission by booking their place at Euro 2020 with a 3-1 win over Slovakia but they are unlikely to sneak under the radar again at next year's finals.
Croatia secured top spot in Group E, a section also including Hungary, Wales and Azerbaijan, with five wins and two draws from their eight qualifiers.
Coach Zlatko Dalic, who masterminded the run to last year's World Cup final, has gradually reconstructed a squad that lost Mario Mandzukic, Danijel Subasic and Vedran Corluka to retirement in the wake of the 4-2 loss to France in Russia.
The "Vatreni" -- Croatian for "Fiery Ones" -- needed only a point in Rijeka on Saturday to ensure a spot at the 24-team event, which kicks off in Rome on June 12.
After a shocking start for home fans when Robert Bozenik scored in the 32th minute, Croatia's qualification was never in doubt once Nikola Vlasic drilled home the leveller in the second half.
Bruno Petkovic headed the hosts in front and Ivan Perisic sealed the three points with a thumping finish with 16 minutes left.
"I'm relieved ... proud and happy," Dalic said after the match.
"These boys deserved the European Championship. This is the crowning moment for all that we have done in this year and a half since the World Cup."
'Dark horses' no more
But the path through qualifying, preceded by a poor showing in the Nations League, where Croatia finished last in their group behind Spain and England, was far from plain sailing.
Thumped 6-0 by Spain in their first competitive outing since the World Cup, Dalic spoke of the need for "fresh blood" to rejuvenate his side.
Incorporating the likes of Petkovic, Josip Brekalo and Vlasic, Croatia began their qualifying bid with a difficult 2-1 victory against Azerbaijan at home in March.
They slumped to a defeat by the same scoreline away to Hungary days later, but victory over Wales in June and a 4-0 win away to Slovakia rebuilt fragile confidence.
A disappointing 1-1 draw in Azerbaijan was a setback but Croatia recovered to dismiss Hungary 3-0, before a point in Cardiff left them on the brink of qualification.
For the former Yugoslav republic, independent since 1991, it is the sixth time it will play at the European Championship.
"We are getting young players who today played like veterans. Vlasic and (Dino) Peric played superbly," Dalic said Saturday.
Croatian papers Sunday echoed his view, praising the squad and Dalic who became just the second coach to take the country to two successive major tournaments.
The legendary Miroslav Ciro Blazevic was the first, leading Croatia to the Euro '96 quarter-finals and a third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup in France.
The nation of 4.2 million people reached the World Cup final last year for the first time, inspired by captain Luka Modric, but eventually fell to a heavily fancied France.
"In a bit more than a year Croatia formed an excellent 'make up' and that is why we are looking forward to the European tournament," the Sportske Novosti daily commented Sunday.
"Croatia will not be a 'dark horse' in summer 2020 but will be rather attacking from the front rows, which is both an advantage and a burden."