Scotland’s shot at reaching the knockout stage of a major tournament for the first time were ended in a 3-1 defeat to a Luka Modric-inspired Croatia at Hampden Park on Tuesday that took the World Cup runners-up into the last 16 of Euro 2020.
After ending a 23-year wait just to qualify for a major tournament, another historic feat was beyond Steve Clarke’s men who were undone by a moment of magic from Modric.
Callum McGregor cancelled out Nikola Vlasic’s early opener to give the hosts hope heading into half-time.
But Modric showed the class that made him the man to break Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s grip on the Ballon d’Or in 2018, a stunning strike with the outside of his foot just after the hour mark restoring Croatia’s lead.
Ivan Perisic’s header rubbed salt into Scottish wounds 13 minutes from time as Croatia pipped the Czech Republic to second place in Group D behind England.
Zlatko Dalic’s side will face the runner-up from Group E, featuring Spain, Sweden, Slovakia and Poland, in Copenhagen next Monday.
Scotland’s preparation had been blighted by the loss of Billy Gilmour to a positive test for coronavirus after the 20-year-old midfielder had shone on his first international start in 0-0 draw against England on Friday.
But Clarke’s squad escaped without any other players being forced to isolate as close contacts and, roared on by 12,000 fans inside Hampden, started on the front foot.
Che Adams was inches away from connecting with John McGinn’s dangerous cross that Dominik Livakovic did well to turn behind for a corner.
Croatia had barely threatened before they went in front on 17 minutes.
Perisic headed down a lofted ball into the box and Vlasic found space between three Scotland defenders to fire low into the corner.
Croatia then had the hosts chasing shadows for 10 minutes as the midfield maestros of Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic took control of the game.
Modric’s blistering drive from outside the box was brilliantly tipped over by David Marshall.
However, Scotland regained their composure and started to pose the Croatians questions again as the half wore on.
McGinn’s effort lacked the power to trouble Livakovic, but three minutes before the break Scotland had their first major tournament goal since 1998.
McGregor pounced on a loose ball at the edge of the box and, on his weaker right foot, the Celtic midfielder drilled into the bottom corner sparking jubilant scenes of celebration.
Scotland went down the tunnel at half-time with a spring in their step, but the physical exertions of holding England four days earlier took their toll as the energy levels of Clarke’s men dipped in the second period.
Marshall bravely blocked from Josko Gvardiol before Perisic blasted straight at the Scotland stopper when clean through.
Just as against the Czechs and England in their opening two games, Scotland were made to pay for not taking their chances.
McGinn somehow failed to make a clean connection at the back post from an inviting cross from Stuart Armstrong.
Moments later, Modric’s deft touch finally broke Scottish hearts.
Croatia calmly worked the opening at the edge of the box before the Real Madrid midfielder caressed the ball into the top corner with the outside of his right foot.
Along with Modric, Perisic has consistently been one of his country’s key performers at major tournaments for nearly a decade.
The Inter Milan winger’s flicked header from a Modric corner dropped in off the inside of the post for his ninth goal at a World Cup or European Championship to end any hope of a Scottish revival.