Fourth in the pool heading into a crunch clash in Cardiff following a slow start to the campaign, Ryan Giggs' men suffered another setback on Sunday as they trailed to Nikola Vlasic's early goal.
Gareth Bale struck shortly before half-time to lift Wales, yet they could not get the crucial second goal and were forced to settle for a point.
Wales now likely require a helping hand from opponents Croatia when they face Slovakia, with the World Cup finalists themselves still to secure a place at the finals after failing to win here.
14 - Gareth Bale has been directly involved in 14 goals in his last 18 starts for Wales in all competitions, scoring 11 and assisting three. Pivotal. pic.twitter.com/HIKmiLMJUW— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 13, 2019
Croatia took control from the outset and had to wait just nine minutes for the opener, with Josip Brekalo dancing in from the left and Bruno Petkovic teeing up Vlasic to shoot low past Wayne Hennessey via the left-hand post.
Only a stunning, stooping Hennessey save denied Ivan Perisic a quick second with a 12-yard header, although a stoppage for Dan James to receive treatment for an apparent head injury slowed the visitors' momentum.
Wales continued to toil until the vital equaliser arrived from a predictable source three minutes into the consequent added period, as Ben Davies picked out Bale to fire beyond Dominik Livakovic.
The home side improved following the restart but chances were at a premium, with only a shaky Livakovic fumble from James' drive offering the Welsh fans any real excitement in front of goal.
A combative match took its toll in the closing stages, too, as Luka Modric was substituted with an injury and Bale ended the contest hobbling badly.
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The fates of these two sides are now surely intertwined, as Wales can only qualify if Croatia also do so, stopping Slovakia. Both teams would expect to win their remaining fixtures and advance, but Giggs' men have slipped up too many times already in this group for progression to be considered a given at this stage.
Davies desire turns contest
A draw was a relatively disappointing result for Wales, but they might have come away empty-handed had Davies not intervened. For while Bale got the leveller, it did not look like coming until the determined defender charged forward - injuring Mateo Kovacic in the challenge - and slid in his clinical colleague. Davies was effective at both ends throughout.
Rugged Croatia pay the price
Wales were unimpressed with some rough challenges from their opponents, as James and Ethan Ampadu were both hit hard - the latter had to be substituted. But the numerous flashpoints also cost Croatia, with centre-backs Domagoj Vida and Dejan Lovren each picking up bookings that will keep them out of their key meeting with Slovakia. Joe Allen is out of Wales' next match following his own yellow card.
Key Opta Facts:
- Wales have avoided defeat to Croatia for the first time since their first ever international meeting in August 2002 (also a 1-1 draw), ending a run of four consecutive losses against them.
- Wales are unbeaten in their last 10 home matches in European Championship qualifying since a 2-0 defeat to England in March 2011 (W7 D3), a run that includes games across qualifying for the 2012, 2016 and 2020 EURO finals.
- Croatia have won just two of their last eight away European Championship qualifying matches (D4 L2). They have gone ahead in all four of their away games in qualification for the 2020 tournament but won just one of those (D2 L1).
- Gareth Bale has been directly involved in 14 goals in his last 18 starts for Wales in all competitions, scoring 11 and assisting three.
- Ben Davies, making his 50th international appearance for Wales, provided his third assist for his country; all three have been for goals scored by Bale.
Wales go to Azerbaijan and then host Hungary in a key qualifying double-header next month, while Croatia welcome Slovakia before a friendly against Georgia.