Croatia rediscover nimble class to wake Scotland from Euro 2020 dream

·5 min read
 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

There will no boogie woogie. There will be no Scotland, but the party will still go on without them. One that Croatia will enjoy for a little longer after a 3-1 victory at Hampden Park to claim second place in Group D.

The neutrals were all-in on Steve Clarke’s men, gracing their first major tournament for 23 years and on the cusp of international knock-out stages for the first time in their history. But if a chastening defeat felt like death to romance, at least the kill was orchestrated and executed by one of modern football’s great romantics.

In what might have been his last appearance for his country, Luka Modric synced muscle-memory with 35-year-old wisdom in a throwback performance that, suddenly, had Croatia looking like threats rather than has-beens.

A stunning outside-the-foot finish into the top corner from 25 yards out settled this match, taking Croatia to a 2-1 lead, before his corner was met by Ivan Perisic for the forward’s ninth goal at a major tournament to put the matter beyond doubt. Aside from the scoreline affecting contributions, Modric’s lavish brushstrokes brightened a frenetic yet entertaining encounter.

Nikola Vlasic’s 17th-minute finish gave Croatia the original lead only for Celtic’s Callum McGregor to equalise from outside the box with Scotland’s first tournament goal since 1998, just before half-time. That, as you’d have heard, was the last time Scotland had played in an international competition. In that time, Croatia has picked up a third-place World Cup finish (1998) along with 2018’s final appearance in defeat by France, along with quarter-final and round-of-16 European Championship appearances in 2008 and 2016, respectively.

Therein lay the difference between the two sides. Established stars who have dimmed against willing challengers who, as a collective, have never been. Modern-day heritage against generational hex. And on the night, it was easier to revive the former than exorcise the latter.

In a final round of group matches full of greys, there was welcome black and white at Hampden Park. Here was the simplest of permutations: Both sides needed to win to make it to the round of 16. With a point each, a draw would have been the tamest of conclusions.

The scenario accounted for the want and desire of both sides. But Scotland’s need for it was more evident. Every fan was seemingly in place 30 minutes before kick-off to ensure the decibel levels were worthy of this house when it’s packed. Those not involved in the starting XI – players and staff – huddled together on the touchline before breaking back to the bench when referee Fernando Rapallini whistled for kick-off. The statement to Croatia was clear – if you want to get through, you’ve got to get through all of us.

Modric sores Croatia’s second goal (Getty Images)
Modric sores Croatia’s second goal (Getty Images)

And so Scotland stormed out of the blocks with two corners in the opening minute. Within six, they should have been ahead: wave upon wave eventually finishing with John McGinn cutting onto his right foot from the left to dink to an unmarked Che Adams who was an extra inch on his studs away from turning the ball past goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.

Croatia were rattled, ducking and weaving like a boxer trying to make it out of an opening flurry, knowing it will pass but unsure if they’ll survive. But survive they did and, on 16 minutes, they landed a telling blow of their own with their first shot on target.

It arrived through the direct and indirect work of the front three, with Perisic, Bruno Petkovic and Vlasic as a narrow three who rarely stayed in that left-to-right order.

A through pass to Petkovic was sweeper-keeper-ed out by David Marshall. However, the next phase found Perisic at the back post, easily out-jumping Stephen O’Donnell to head the ball into the middle. Vlasic used what little space he had to fire into the corner and make it 1-0 to the visitors.

So came the bad dream sequence: each Scottish touch heavy and every run seemingly through quicksand as Croatia found the nimble class they failed to harness in their first two matches. Misfortune followed when Grant Hanley picked up an injury and was substituted for Scott McKenna, whose first act was to pick up a clumsy yellow card. An inevitable doom came over the ground beyond the two small pockets of Croatia fans, though even they kept their cheer uncharacteristically measured.

But three minutes before half-time, McGregor controlled a firm clearance with his left and shot low with his right to make it 1-1. The first half was brought to a conclusion with a greater cacophony of noise than the sounds that opened it. That level did not drop into the second half.

The break, however, suited Croatia, emerging more dominant. Perhaps even more aware of how good they were, and how big the gulf is when they set their tempo higher than the Scots could reach.

Modric’s performance was crucial in Croatia’s victory (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Modric’s performance was crucial in Croatia’s victory (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Marshall’s bravery at the feet of Josko Gvardiol kept matters square, as did his choice to stay big when Perisic had been beautifully found by Modric from deep. The midfield veteran was ticking, always in space and always with time in a match where everyone else felt rushed.

Each drag back, side-foot punch and spread wide felt like nudges to refresh on the player and take in the man. Just past the hour, teed up by Mateo Kovacic, he drove with the outside of his foot like most do with the instep to place high and beyond Marshall.

Later, after lazily walking over to take a corner in the 77th minute, he silenced the boos that greeted his clock management with an inch-perfect near-post cross that Perisic leapt to send in off the far post.

Captain Andy Robertson with his beaten Scotland teammates (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Captain Andy Robertson with his beaten Scotland teammates (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

At the full-time whistle, after Scotland fans had sung their praises for the effort on the field, Modric dropped to his knees and pounded the ground.

His opposition captain Andy Robertson dropped to the ground and put his head between his knees. Both spent: one done and one with more to give.

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