The expansion of the European Championship to 24 teams helped Scotland to return to tournament football after an absence of more than two decades. The format could not, though, assist with the end to another horror run. The Scots have still never emerged from the group phase of a competition. Victory here would have changed that statistic. Instead, comprehensive defeat. Perhaps that will be easier for the Tartan Army to stomach than any kind of glorious, cliched failure.
As inspired by Luka Modric – who else? – Croatia took a hammer to Steve Clarke’s dream. “No one is sure how he still manages to play to the level he still does,” the Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said of Modric. “I can’t think of the words to describe it.” Join the club.
Scotland missed an abundance of chances when falling to the Czech Republic last Monday and did likewise when meeting England on Friday. This time, the class and experience of opposition shone through. Croatia strode into the knockout stage, where they will hope to build on this morale‑boosting evening. With Modric, anything remains possible.
Tales of Croatia’s supposed demise were only enhanced by a record of just four wins from 15 as they entered this fixture.
Scottish confidence was also boosted by the fact they had never lost against this opposition. Still, it must be remembered that Dalic’s team were World Cup finalists three years ago; if there has been a slide, it started from a rather high point. Croatia have considerably more experience than Scotland of tournament play. How that ultimately showed.
The claiming of two corners in the opening 40 seconds intensified another raucous Hampden atmosphere.
When Che Adams narrowly failed to connect with a wonderful, sixth‑minute John McGinn cross, Scottish hope rose once more. If there was quiet, underlying concern it would have been fair; Scotland did not score a goal in their opening two Group D outings.
Clarke’s satisfaction with his team’s performance during the draw at Wembley on Friday was borne out by his selection. The sole change was Stuart Armstrong replacing Billy Gilmour, who sat isolated in a hotel room after testing positive for Covid-19. The standard of Gilmour’s display against England was such that his absence felt far more significant than would ordinarily be the case for a 20-year-old who had started just a single game for his country.
At 23, Nikola Vlasic is already a Croatia regular. The CSKA Moscow man demonstrated why with a level of composure that flattened the mood on Glasgow’s south side. Ivan Perisic was the creator, rising above Stephen O’Donnell to meet a cross from the right. With Scotland players circling, Vlasic slammed the ball underneath David Marshall having collected Perisic’s knockdown. Modric soon blasted narrowly over Marshall’s crossbar.
Just when the game looked entirely of Croatia’s suiting, Scotland blasted back. Andy Robertson’s cross was cleared by Domagoj Vida to the feet of Callum McGregor, with the Celtic midfielder delivering a powerful finish from the edge of the penalty area. This marked Scotland’s first finals goal since 16 June 1998. It was McGregor’s first for his country. Scotland headed to the dressing room at half-time with spring in their step.
If Croatia were baffled by a failure to build on their advantage by the interval, they would have had justification. Within five minutes of the restart, they wasted a terrific opportunity to regain the lead. This time Vlasic turned provider, with a cute through pass to the marauding Josko Gvardiol.
A poor first touch by Gvardiol allowed Marshall to rescue an ominous situation for the Scots. The tone for a second half whereby a point was no use to either side had apparently been set.
Marshall’s next stop, with his chest, was even more impressive after Perisic breached Scotland’s central defence. Scotland attempted to land a crucial blow of their own, McGinn instead flicking Armstrong’s cross from the left just wide. A winner-takes-all clash was being played in precisely the correct tone.
Modric, now in his 36th year, stepped forward to have the kind of defining moment as has been such a theme of his career.
Croatia appeared to know precisely what they were doing when working the ball from inside to outside of the penalty area, with the Real Madrid midfielder using the outside of his boot to bend a shot into Marshall’s top right-hand corner from 20 yards. It was a goal of stunning quality. Croatia’s grip on the last‑16 place had been re-established, via an entirely familiar source.
Modric was not finished, albeit Scotland soon were. His corner from the left found Perisic, who beat Kieran Tierney to the ball before flicking his header into the Scotland net. Clarke’s introduction of the Rangers youngster Nathan Patterson, six minutes from time, was inevitably with one eye on the future. Scotland’s immediate quest is to ensure it isn’t another 23 years before they reappear at international football’s top table, however bruising this domain proved to be.