A night which promised so much heralded very little in the end as Nikola Vlasic and Luka Modric struck either side of Callum McGregor’s equaliser. Ivan Perisic completed the scoring to take the Croats into the tournament’s knockout phase.
Scotland flattered to deceive for much of the evening in what was one of the biggest games in the country’s international football history. Victory for either side secured a place in the next round and Croatia showed the required quality to seize the opportunity.
Modric’s impish finish with the outside of his right boot was the moment of the game on 62 minutes. He flicked the ball high out of the reach of the Scottish goalkeeper David Marshall from the edge of the penalty area – putting his country 2-1 ahead – before delivering the corner for Perisic’s classy header.
The frustration for those in dark blue was that their opponents looked unstable in defence whenever serious questions were asked of them. However, Scotland’s own back line didn’t look as composed as against England at Wembley last Friday. Conceding three times in any match at a major tournament will leave you in serious bother, particularly a team that toils to score.
The convincing performance in London raised Scottish hopes following the disappointing start to Group D against Czech Republic. Monday evening’s results in other groups combined to ensure the task was clear for this match: A win would bring historic progress to the knockout rounds, anything less would bring elimination.
As ever when a significant achievement looms within touching distance for Scotland, there was no shortage of nervous tension around Hampden. The sunshine made for a fantastic spectacle on a mild summer’s night, but the Tartan Army know that bright dispositions can be dangerous when supporting the national team. They could only hope, cheer and pray that this time would eclipse all the years of glorious failure.
Stuart Armstrong returned to Scotland’s starting line-up to replace the isolating Billy Gilmour. That was manager Steve Clarke’s only change. The Croatians named several World Cup 2018 finalists in their side, including midfielders Modric and Marcelo Brozovic, plus winger Perisic. For coach Zlatko Dalic, this tournament was a chance to go one better and bring a trophy back home to the modest Balkan nation.
The early initiative belonged to the Scots with striker Che Adams and right wing-back Stephen O’Donnell in particular causing trouble with their intelligent movement. Dominik Livakovic, the Croat goalkeeper, was worked several times by shots and crosses. If that was encouraging, it didn’t last as the visitors seized on the first genuine opening they created.
When Josip Juranovic delivered a ball from the right to Perisic at the back post, his downward header was controlled and finished off by Vlasic 12 yards from goal. It was precisely the early concession Clarke would have ordered his players to avoid. The Tartan Army responded with a roar of encouragement in an effort to boost their team.
Pressure on the Croatia goal ended with John McGinn’s side-footed attempt which Livakovic dealt with on 23 minutes. Scotland’s problem was retaining possession as the opposition understandably grew in confidence after taking the lead. They stroked the ball around crisply and with real intensity, although still appeared less than convincing in defence when hustled by dark blue shirts.
An injury to Grant Hanley forced Clarke into a defensive change after 33 minutes. Scott McKenna was the replacement centre-back, although his first challenge resulted in a yellow card for a clumsy foul on striker Bruno Petkovic. Runners off the ball in red and white became a more frequent sight, especially down O’Donnell’s flank, and Scotland badly needed a goal before the break.
It arrived on 42 minutes. Not for the first time, Croatia failed to properly clear a cross into their penalty area as Domagoj Vida swept the ball out to McGregor 18 yards from goal. His right-footed shot was perfectly placed away from Livakovic’s despairing dive and the Celtic midfielder set off to celebrate as the net rippled. It was the first Scottish goal at a European Championship since Ally McCoist against Switzerland 25 years previously.
Fans were acutely aware of the weaknesses in Croatia’s defence and desperately wanted their side to test it more frequently. The first attack of the second period demonstrated the need to beware at the other end, Croatian full-back Josko Gvardiol’s surging run through the middle thwarted only by the emerging Marshall.
Still the Croatians probed. Some brief respite came when McGinn got to Armstrong’s deep delivery from the left but couldn’t direct his effort goalwards under pressure. Minutes later, Scotland found themselves behind again to a sublime Modric finish.
He nonchalantly drove Mateo Kovacic’s pass high beyond Marshall with the outside of his right foot from 20 yards for a goal fit to win any game. It was difficult not to admire the diminutive captain’s ingenuity even at the age of 35. His moment of expertise effectively killed Scottish hopes of progress with more than a quarter of the match remaining.
Two goals to progress was simply too mountainous a task in such a short space of time. When Perisic rose to glance home Modric’s corner on 78 minutes, it signalled the end of Scotland’s involvement at Euro 2020.
Young substitutes Kevin Nisbet and Nathan Patterson got a taste of the action late on. Nurturing the next generation is vital to avoid another 23-year wait to reach a major tournament. For now, though, Scotland must digest a missed opportunity on the biggest European stage.
Scotland (3-4-1-2): Marshall; McTominay, Hanley (McKenna 33), Tierney; O’Donnell (Paterson 84), Armstrong (Fraser 20), McGregor, Robertson; McGinn; Dykes, Adams (Nisbet 84).
Croatia (4-3-3): Livakovic; Juranovic, Lovren, Vida, Gvardiol (Barisic 70); Modric, Brozovic, Kovacic; Vlasic (Ivanusec 76), Petkovic (Kramaric 70), Perisic (Rebic 81).