In the end, and for the second time this tournament, there was nothing Scotland could do but stand and watch. As the peerless Luka Modric bent his body and curled a sumptuous shot into the top corner with the outside of his right foot, he delivered a brutal knockout blow to Scotland’s party with the beauty and grace of a ballerina.
It was in some ways reminiscent of Patrik Schick’s wondergoal from the halfway line, which handed Scotland their opening defeat of the tournament last week. For a few seconds the ball seemed to hang in the air before the magic of the moment came crashing down for Scotland, along with the reality of an early exit from Euro 2020.
Scotland were hoping to mark their return to a major competition for the first time in 23 years by reaching the knockout stages of the Euros for the first time on home soil. Instead, the Hampden crowd were left admiring the performance of one of the best midfielders to play the modern game. At the age of 35, Modric has dragged what looked an old and uninspired Croatia side through what was a tricky assignment and into the last 16.
The home side will once again rue missed chances, not just here but across their three matches at these Euros, but in the end they can have no complaints. Scotland matched England with everything they had in their Wembley draw but they were outclassed against Croatia at Hampden – their midfield having no answer to the performances of Modric and Mateo Kovacic.
It would perhaps be a stretch to suggest that 20-year-old Billy Gilmour, with three international appearances to his name compared with Modric’s 140, would have made a difference. But the midfielder’s performance against England on his first start for Scotland gave the team so much confidence in possession and contributed to the sense of optimism heading into this meeting with the 2018 World Cup runners-up.
Losing Gilmour to a positive Covid-19 test felt like the cruellest of blows at the harshest of times – the mood was markedly dashed on Monday, but it had picked up again by the time the Tartan Army got inside Hampden, with the home crowd again defying their numbers to provide an electric atmosphere ahead of kick-off.
It was a perfect performance from Croatia’s midfield which quietened them down. It was no surprise to say that Modric ran the show, and at times the Real Madrid midfielder and Chelsea’s Kovacic looked like they were playing their own game – picking up loose balls and keeping possession with an expert display of poise.
Modric was supreme: finding pockets of space, zipping balls through the lines while knowing when to speed play up and when to slow it down. At one point Kovacic danced away from a series of challenges from John McGinn, Scott McTominay and Callum McGregor, with the nimbleness of his movement seeming to shock the chasing pack. It was a level above what the Scots had experienced in their opening two games – including England at Wembley.
The style and certainty of the visitors’ play, coupled with Nikola Vlasic’s 17th-minute strike at the back post, threatened to ruin Scotland’s occasion early on. There was a noticeable drop in the crowd’s intensity in the spells that followed the goal, as the reality of Scotland’s situation set in – but it was momentarily shattered by McGregor’s hit shortly before half-time.
Hampden was rocking once again, with the Scots finally scoring a goal on their return to the major international stage providing that sweet moment of release for the home fans. Croatia could have buckled, but Modric led by example and his team picked up where they left off in the second half.
His stunning strike shortly after the hour mark left Scotland with too much to do, before he completed the job by swinging a corner onto the head of Ivan Perisic for Croatia’s third. At full-time he collapsed to his knees, with the enormity of his effort sinking in. Scotland had given it all and had done themselves proud by reaching this stage – but this was the moment they learned a lesson in quality from one of the world’s best.