When it was all done and dusted the cameras homed in on a disconsolate young Scotland supporter fan in the Hampden stands seeking comfort from his father. Hot, streaming tears streaked the Saltires on his face and the old heads in the Tartan Army knew precisely how he felt. They’d been here before.
So much for clapped-out Croatia. So much for an ageing Luka Modric being past his best, cruising downhill on a one-way slope.
After delivering a footballing lesson to Scotland in their traditional home the 35-year-old former Ballon D’Or winner sank to his knees on the Hampden turf.
Scotland’s Euro 2020 story was a familar tale as they failed to make the knockout stages
The Tartan Army were beaten 3-1 by Croatia at Hampden Park as they crashed out of the group
Under immense pressure to replicate the success of the 2018 World Cup the little maestro delivered when it mattered most, ending Scotland’s appearance at a major tournament for 23 years in an old, familiar sinking feeling.
The 0-0 draw with England proved a false dawn in the end. Despite Callum McGregor’s first international strike in 32 appearances cancelling out a cheap opener for Nikola Vlasic after 17 minutes Steve Clarke’s side were always chasing, always second best.
Modric was, by some distance, the most gifted performer on the field. Give them this much, at this tournament Scotland have rarely conceded normal goals. After a Schickener for the Czech Republic, a sublime piece of skill from Croatia’s talisman knocked the wind out of Steve Clarke’s side after 62 minutes.
A piercing corner from the Real Madrid midfielder in the final minutes of play teed up a soaring header for Ivan Perisic and a place in the last 16 was secure.
With Scotland it pays to pray for the best and prepare for the worst. An eleventh attempt to secure a place in the second stage of an international finals ended like so many through the years. Count up the mishaps and the list is damning
Luka Modric proved he is still a top class player with a stunning goal to put Croatia 2-1 ahead
Going easy on Zaire in ‘74. Johnny Rep’s thunderbolt in Argentina. Hansen and Miller performing an impromptu Tango against the Russians in ’82. Steve Nicol blowing a golden chance against ten-man Uruguay. A late Brazil heartbreaker at Italia ’90. England’s David Seaman letting a late goal through his legs against the Dutch. Losing 3-0 to Morocco at France 98.
On Tuesday, at least, they kept it simple. In need of a win a win to make history, a team deprived of Billy Gilmour’s ball retention by coronavirus missed the Chelsea midfielder badly. Watching the young apprentice against Modric the Master would have been a fascinating business and, but for the virtue-signalling refusal of Scots politicians to vaccinate the national football team it might have come to pass.
After failing to advance from the group stages for the first time at the eleventh time of asking all Scotland had to show for their efforts over three games was one goal and one point. Ultimately they failed to defend well enough and lacked a clinical finisher in front of goal. At this level, that’s a fatal combination.
Optimism before kick-off was drawn came from omens; historical footnotes. In two previous appearances at the European Championships the Scots had won their final games against the Russian Federation and Switzerland. In their last five appearances Croatia alternated between progressing from the group stage (1996, 2008 and 2016) and crashing out at the first hurdle (2004 and 2012). Scotland could hope for the footballing Gods to continue the pattern or go out and make it happen. Second best for long spells, they just couldn’t do it.
The opening goal from Nikola Vlasic was a cheap and poor strike to lose. It gave Croatia confidence and set the tone.
Scotland know all about exiting at the group stage after heartbreak in past tournaments
Right-back Josip Juranovic fired a driven cross towards the back post when Perisic climbed above a flat-footed Stephen O’Donnell too easily. Heading the ball into the path of Vlasic the winger took one touch to steady himself, another to slide a fine finish into the bottom corner of the net from 12 yards past a well beaten Marshall.
The impact of the goal on both teams was marked. Croatia visibly grew in stature, passing the ball in pretty patterns around a spooked and cowed Scotland. Luka Modric thumped a 20 yard drive over the bar with the help of David Marshall. Without Billy Gilmour to drop back, take the ball and control it, they lacked composure and an outlet.
The loss of central defender Grant Hanley after 32 minutes added to the deepening sense of gloom around Hampden. The Norwich captain collapsed in his own half clutching his hamstring. Nottingham Forest defender Scott McKenna saw his first action of the tournament as a replacement and before he had taken a touch of the ball he was booked by the Argentine referee and walking a tightrope.
Croatia dominated possession and, for Scotland, the danger of a killer second goal was all too real. Enjoying long periods with the ball the visitors had the scent of blood in the nostrils.
There was little to suggest Scotland had the composure or penetration to break their duck at the tournament. John McGinn’s slightly mishit sidefoot from a Lyndon Dykes lay-off was a rare foray into opposition half. When the goal finally came three minutes before half-time it was quite unexpected and magnificently timely.
Scotland fans have been here before and they could only watch on as their team battled
Andy Robertson’s cross from the left was cleared as far as Callum McGregor by defender Domagoj Vida, the Celtic midfielder taking one touch before rifling a brilliant strike inside the right hand post for 1-1. Scotland’s traditional home erupted in joy and more than a little relief. After a half where the possession read 69 per cent for Croatia and 31 per cent for Scotland, the only statistic which mattered was the scoreline.
To win the game Scotland needed two things in the second half. More bite and more of the ball.
Yet the game quickly slipped into a familiar pattern. Croatia bossed it, Scotland chased shadows.
It needed a big, brave save from David Marshall to prevent the team in blue going behind for a second time. What wonderkid left-back Josko Guardiol was even doing racing through the centre in the number nine role only he can say. Had it been a striker racing on to a perfectly weighted through ball Scotland would have been in trouble. A heavy touch gave Marshall time to deal with it.
McGinn will reflect, no doubt, on a glorious chance to give Scotland the lead for the first time when he arrived at the back post and failed to guide a piercing Robertson cross into the net from close range. The ball was just too high.
The Tartan Army missed Billy Gilmour in midfield with the youngster missing out due to Covid
Just as Hampden found its voice once more, however, silence descended after a finish of quality from Modric. Curling the ball with the outside of his right foot into the top corner, it was a moment of excellence Scotland couldn’t match. Nor, for that matter, recover from.
With 12 minutes to play Modric rubbed salt in the wounds, a perfect corner picking out a soaring Perisic in the area.
A guided header finished Scotland off and proved the cue for Nathan Patterson to make his international debut as a late substitute. There will be no Euro reprieve for Gilmour, no return in the quarter-finals. With Scotland it’s the hope that kills you.