And so the tablecloth unravels. Luka Modric found an equaliser for Croatia midway through the second half – and twice they hit the post in the final four minutes – but a draw leaves them seven points behind England with four games left, and uneasy in the knowledge that, in the battle for second and a play-off spot, Ukraine are three points behind with a game in hand.
Ukraine may have been outplayed for long periods, and may have offered almost nothing as an attacking threat once Andriy Shevchenko had limped off midway through the first half, but that will only heighten the anxiety for Croatia, who know that should they and Ukraine finish level on points, it will be Oleksiy Mykhailychenko's team who go through, away goals giving them the better head-to-head record.
Would they have won had Eduardo been fit, and they'd had his guile and ruthlessness to draw on? Quite possibly, but it is an excuse that has long since worn thin. Besides, having been gifted a second-minute opener as Andriy Pyatov – perhaps startled by the boom of a fire-cracker in the stand behind him – patted Darijo Srna's assist down for Mladen Petric to poke over the line, they had no need to go chasing goals.
Not for the first time, they were cost by indifferent defending. The weighting of Serhiy Nazarenko's pass for Ruslan Rotan was precise, but there was no need for there to be such space behind Vedran Corluka. Rotan's cross was superb, and Shevchenko didn't have to break stride to nod his 41st international goal.
Few doubt the technical ability or the vision of Nazarenko, but the criticism of the Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk playmaker has always been that he disappears from games. True enough, after one more defence-piercing through-ball for Artem Milevskyi, he vanished for the remainder of the game, resurfacing only to take the free-kick from which Oleksiy Hay headed Ukraine into the lead nine minutes into the second half.
To say it was undeserved would be unfair, for Slaven Bilic had been troubled enough at half-time to make two substitutions, but neither was it expected. Bilic's response was to take off Ivica Olic for Mario Mandzukic, who took over the playmaking duties at Dinamo Zagreb when Modric left for Tottenham. Suddenly the momentum was all with Croatia: Srna had a shot well saved by Pyatov and Vitaliy Mandzyuk cleared off the line from Petric before the equaliser arrived.
Modric exchanged passes on the edge of the box with Mandzukic, and although his shot was half-blocked, the deflection took the ball on a gentle parabola over Pyatov and into the net. Modric then hit the post after a swiftly taken free-kick, before a low Petric drive bounced back off the same upright. The luck of the Maksimir mole as locals refer to the bobble that confounded Paul Robinson in 2006 has surely now been paid off.
For Bilic, this is another test of his managerial acumen. He is charismatic when things are going well, but can he dispel a mounting sense of crisis?