‘Callow Scots learn lesson at tough school’

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June 23, 2021
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    As the clock wound down and the minutes ran out on their Euros campaign, a brief and almost plaintive cry went up from the home support, a last flurry of following for their beaten team. 'Oh Scotland, we love you' went the chant.

    When it died away, all you could hear in its stead was the singing of the hardy Croatian souls away in a corner of Hampden. You didn't need to speak their language to get an angle on who they might have been serenading.

    Luka Modric put the visitors 2-1 ahead with a goal of the most sumptuous quality, a delicate thing of beauty that wreaked such terrible havoc. They went on to rub salt in Scotland's wounds with a third. Unnecessary, that, but it's a tough school, this.

    On the full-time whistle, both captains sank to the turf; Modric with his arms in the air and a liberated look on his face – this wondrous wee man will dance again in this tournament – and Andy Robertson hitting the deck for altogether different reasons. Exhaustion, frustration – all of that and more.

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    The cameras flashed to a little boy in tears. It's been fun, but it's over. Croatia were too good; too efficient in possession, too classy in the key moments, too ruthless in a way that Scotland simply were not. They had Modric. There aren't too many Modrics out there. Not one who wears Scotland's blue, that's for sure.

    They also had Mateo Kovacic. Scotland did not possess a midfielder in his class either. In the middle of the park there was a gulf. It was the winning and losing of the game. Scotland worked hard, but hard work was not enough.

    '11th time lucky? Or same old story?'

    At the top of the north stand the flags fluttered in the evening breeze, one for Scotland, one for Croatia and another bearing the hashtag 'equal game', a reference to Uefa's respect campaign but also an expression of the fears of both nations writ large.

    An equal game was the last thing either of them wanted. A draw was worthless and that desperation for victory – boom or bust – gave the night a pulsating quality, for a while at any rate.

    The morning papers had catalogued Scotland's pain in these tournaments, their 10 failed bids to get out of the group stages at various World Cups and European Championships and the weird and weirder ways they'd conspired to mess it up for themselves along the way, particularly in the last act.

    'Fright to the last – our third game jinx', blasted the Record. The tales of woe were all laid bare, every last sorry one.

    And here the nation was again – 11th time lucky or 11th time exactly the same as the previous 10. We have our answer. Just as Hampden was electrified on Monday before the ill-fated game with the Czechs, it rocked anew on Tuesday.

    A crowd of 12,000? The decibel level was that of many times that number. In the beginning at any rate. By the end, it was quiet, oh so quiet.

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    It was 7:54pm when Andy Robertson led his team out. We took note of the time in the forlorn hope that a forensic record might be needed of the night Scotland finally made it out of a major championship group, 67 years after first trying.

    The atmosphere? Immense. Flower of Scotland? Enough to make Stone Cold Steve Clarke shake were it not for the fact that the man is made of granite.

    It seems an age ago now, but six minutes in and Scotland went close – something of a recurring theme this past week. It was a bright start, full of intent. Front-foot football.

    Callum McGregor won it in midfield, John McGinn lobbed in a cross and Che Adams was on to it – almost. He stuck out a leg. Any contact might have brought a goal. There was none.

    In Scotland's pursuit of a goal, there was no comfort in the pre-match group table, a grim reminder that, of the 24 nations competing at the Euros, the only one yet to score were the one country that needed to like they needed their next breath.

    The only refuge was the stats, a source of hope for a support wanting to believe. In their first two games, the Scots had 30 attempts on goal and had forced more saves from opposition goalkeepers than France.

    Robertson had put in more crosses than any player in the tournament. He'd gone on more dribbles than Raheem Sterling. McGinn had five efforts blocked in two games. Nobody had more. In 180 minutes, Scotland had 72 attacks, England – for all the talk about their domestic and European winners – had 71.

    This was hopeful, almost desperate stuff, though. The point of it all is scoring, a brutal reality hammered home when Ivan Perisic climbed above Stephen O'Donnell and nodded down for the excellent Nikola Vlasic to make it 1-0.

    In the swing of his boot, he hushed Hampden. Doomsday had arrived inside 18 minutes. The team that couldn't score now needed to score two. It wasn't just a mountain Scotland had to climb anymore, it was Everest.

    The Croatians we'd been hearing about were supposed to have been past it. Only four wins in their last 15 games. No wins at all in their last four. Their media giving them pelters, their fans giving it to them in the neck.

    They were liberated by that goal. Now they just passed it and passed it. They had Scotland on the move, they had the stadium largely hushed. Modric lashed one over. So did Perisic.

    The sense of foreboding was added to a touch when Grant Hanley, the Tower of London, went off injured and was replaced by Scott McKenna, who got booked almost before he had a chance to clear his throat.

    'Torment never far away from Scotland'

    You longed for Scotland to get to half-time without conceding again. You didn't expect what happened next. Croatia had their chances to clear it. A few headers, a ball that could have been fly hacked into Row Z by Domagoj Vida. They messed about and for their trouble, they got McGregored.

    When all the plaudits were dished out after Wembley, the Celtic midfielder was way down the list, but he was terrific last Friday. When Scotland needed him, with the ball at his feet and the Croatians frantically trying to get to him, he delivered again. Straight in the corner. Ruthless as you like. Hampden came alive in that moment.

    The torment is never far away, though, is it? It stalks Scotland. Early in the second half they had a chance to go in front when Stuart Armstrong swung over a cross to the back post to McGinn, who tried to baby it home rather than taking ball and goalkeeper and driving the pair of them over the line with a vengeance.

    It was a decent opportunity, and the next time we saw one of those it fell to Modric. We say an opportunity. It was actually a piece of greatness from a player who has been delivering such moments for years, a first-time shot with the outside of his right boot that curled beautifully (or painfully) beyond David Marshall.

    No doubt the Tartan Army would have applauded, but they had other uses for their hands at the time, mostly clasped over their eyes as they contemplated their fate.

    Marshall howled at the night sky. Did he know the game was up? If he didn't then, he did soon enough. Perisic's glancing header from a corner put it beyond doubt. Hampden's noise went in an instant. Over and out.

    The tunes of Croatia's Zapresic Boys filled the ground. Their Euros anthem, a song that tells the tale of the beauty of their homeland which, apparently, "shines up even in the dark," was belting out as Scotland's players would have been sinking into their seats in the dressing room.

    Whatever. The song is mediocre at best. Baccara knocks the spots off it, even if the time to boogie has sadly passed.

    Fun while it lasted, yet again at a major championship it didn't last nearly long enough. Eleven tournaments and counting. Groan.

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    June 23, 2021
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