The extension of the European Championship to 24 teams has helped Scotland return to tournament football after an absence of more than two decades. The format couldn’t help at the end of another horror race, however. The Scots have never emerged from the group stage of a competition. Winning here would have changed that statistic. Instead, complete defeat. It might be easier for the tartan army to endure than any glorious, cliché failure.
Inspired by Luka Modric – who else? – Croatia put a hammer on Steve Clarke’s dream. “Nobody knows how he still manages to play at the level he always does,” Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic said of Modric. “I can’t find the words to describe it. »Join the club.
Scotland missed plenty of chances when they fell to the Czech Republic last Monday and did the same when they met England on Friday. This time the class and experience of the opposition shone. Croatia have advanced to the knockout stages, where they hope to build on the morale-boosting night. With Modric, everything is possible.
Stories of Croatia’s supposed demise were only reinforced by a record breaking just four out of 15 as they entered this game.
Scottish confidence was also boosted by the fact that they had never lost to this opposition. However, it should not be forgotten that Dalic’s team was a World Cup finalist three years ago; if there was a slide, it started from a fairly high point. Croatia have considerably more tournament experience than Scotland. How it finally showed.
Claiming two turns in the first 40 seconds intensified another boisterous atmosphere in Hampden.
When Che Adams failed to connect with a magnificent cross from John McGinn in the sixth minute, the Scottish hope returned once again. If there had been a calm underlying worry, that would have been right; Scotland haven’t scored a goal in their first two Group D games.
Clarke’s satisfaction with her team’s performance in the draw at Wembley on Friday has been confirmed by her selection. The only change was Stuart Armstrong replacing Billy Gilmour, who sat in solitary in a hotel room after testing positive for Covid-19. The level of Gilmour’s display against England was such that his absence seemed far greater than would normally be the case for a 20-year-old who had only started one game for his country.
At 23, Nikola Vlasic is already a regular in Croatia. The man from CSKA Moscow 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. As the Scottish players circled around, Vlasic slammed the ball under David Marshall after recovering Perisic’s knockdown. Modric quickly exploded narrowly over Marshall’s crossbar.
Just when the game looked entirely Croatia-like, Scotland hit back. Andy Robertson’s cross was cleared by Domagoj Vida at the feet of Callum McGregor, the Celtic midfielder delivering a powerful finish from the edge of the penalty area. It was Scotland’s first goal in the final since June 16, 1998. It was McGregor’s first for his country. Scotland headed for the locker room at halftime with spring in their step.
If Croatia had been baffled by their inability to take advantage of their advantage at the break, they would have been right. Within five minutes of the restart, they missed a formidable opportunity to regain the lead. This time, Vlasic became supplier, with a nice assist for marauder Josko Gvardiol.
A bad first touch from Gvardiol helped Marshall save a worrying situation for the Scots. The tone for a second half where a point was of no use to either side had apparently been set.
Marshall’s next save, with his chest, was even more impressive after Perisic broke through Scotland’s central defense. Scotland tried to deliver a crucial blow, McGinn instead making an Armstrong cross from the left right next to it. A clash with the winner takes everything played out precisely in the right tone.
Modric, now in his 36th year, stepped forward to experience the kind of defining moment that has been a theme of his career.
Croatia seemed to know precisely what they were doing when they worked the ball from the inside to the outside of the penalty area, with the Real Madrid midfielder using the outside of his boot to fold a shot into the box. Marshall’s upper right corner 20 yards away. It was a lens of breathtaking quality. Croatia’s grip on the last 16 had been reestablished, via a very familiar source.
Modric was not finished, although Scotland was soon to be. His left corner found Perisic, who beat Kieran Tierney on the ball before throwing his header into the Scottish net. Clarke’s introduction of young Ranger Nathan Patterson six minutes to go was inevitably forward-looking. Scotland’s immediate quest is to make sure it won’t be another 23 years before they reappear in first place in international football, as deadly as this area has turned out.