This World Cup qualifying group was lost to an early bout of haplessness, and for a time a mood of despair seemed to have taken hold. Gordon Strachan will never succumb to over-exuberance, but steady progress is an achievement when this might have become a notably grim campaign.
Scotland kicked off last night facing the prospect of enduring their first qualifying group in 60 years without a single home win. Instead, they gathered some optimism, sight of the increasing options that Strachan can deploy, particularly in the forward areas, and the willingness to believe that hope does not always now need to be cast aside.
With two players deployed up front, energy and industry in every area of the field, and an ingrained understanding of each of their obligations, the players reflected the value of Strachan's work.
The objective was for Scotland to turn this into a night when they reclaimed something from their past. Strachan spoke in the build-up about opposition teams once fearing a visit to Hampden, that time in history when the home side could deploy a combination of aggression, self-assurance and genuine accomplishment. The crowd used to react with a sustained, almost guttural, noise that became synonymous with the stadium. The Hampden Roar seems a mythical characteristic now, when a gathering of hardy Croatians could out-sing the entire home support.
The atmosphere is irrelevant to the best players, and what Strachan wanted was a return to a bullish, spirited sense of purpose. The years of diminishment generated an inferiority complex that was only intermittently overcome. Even the renaissance under Strachan has involved setbacks, but victories in Macedonia and Croatia were heartening, and the mood under Strachan has been of restrained optimism, but a World Cup qualifying campaign that began in a surge of recrimination needed to deliver some kind of hope.
A group with Belgium and Croatia was always going to test the limits of Scotland's resourcefulness. Instead, it delivered a withering judgment on the reign of Craig Levein, and ushered in a new manager who had to revive old values and certainties with the same group of players.
It is a measure of the improvements Strachan has been able to deliver that an unorthodox centre-back pairing of Russell Martin (generally a full-back at club level) and Grant Hanley (a raw, often still awkward defender) has taken hold, even if there was an alarming moment during the second half when the Croatian substitute Eduardo was able to run through the middle of the defence and carry the ball round Allan McGregor, only to shoot into the side netting.
Strachan's intention is to turn Scotland into a well-ordered, confident team able to be poised on the ball and not lose sight of the basic requirements of holding shape and concentration.
There is room for devilment, and the emergence of Ikechi Anya, along with the resurgence of Chris Burke, tells of a manager who still favours the benefits of genuine wing play. Anya was a modest contributor during the first half, but his searing pace and work-rate were still enough to leave an impression. Mostly, though, it was the deployment of a 4-4-2 formation that reminded that Strachan is capable of moments of boldness. It might have galled Jordan Rhodes that the manager used that shape while he was out with a groin injury, since the point has been made often enough by the coaching staff that he cannot play the lone striker role.
None the less, pairing Steven Naismith and Robert Snodgrass was a sign that Scotland will not always seek to contain opponents first at home when the European 2016 qualifying campaign kicks off next season. They are a duo capable of ingenuity as much as hard running, while Naismith is deceptively effective in the air. Once an initial period of command from the visitors had been withstood, and Scotland's pressuring of the ball high up the field began to unsettle the Croatians, the home side showed that they were capable of maintaining possession in a calm, reserved manner.
Naismith and Snodgrass were central to the most effective incursions, particularly when they could lay the ball off to each other and spin into space. It was Naismith's awareness that enabled the pass to Charlie Mulgrew that led to Snodgrass's headed goal. Then the two strikers played a deft one-two that sent Snodgrass through, only for his shot to be pushed on to the post by Stipe Pletikosa, the Croatian goalkeeper.
There was an expanse of effort behind the display, and Strachan could be seen scribbling notes early in the second half. He also berated Snodgrass from the touchline after the forward did not run back behind the ball quickly enough after losing possession in the final third. That demanding nature was cajoling and coercing a solid display, and the second goal told of the nature of the contest.
Anya won a penalty with his opportunistic sleight of feet and although Barry Bannan's spot-kick was saved by Pletikosa, Naismith was first to the rebound and scored. While he celebrated, the Croatian players argued amongst themselves, almost coming to blows.