Croatia had been ordered to play the match behind closed doors after a swastika was marked on the pitch in Split ahead of a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy.
And the World Cup finalists appeared to miss the backing of their home fans as they struggled to take control of the match, with England dominating after a poor first half from both sides.
But Gareth Southgate's men could not atone for their semi-final defeat to the same opponents in Russia, despite hitting the woodwork twice and seeing Marcus Rashford waste a pair of fantastic opportunities
The absence of spectators – with the exception of a hardy group of England supporters watching from the top of a nearby hill – contributed to a low-key opening in Rijeka, with shots at goal about as common as fans through the turnstiles in the early stages.
The game's first shot on target did not arrive until the 37th minute, when Andrej Kramaric failed to truly test Jordan Pickford from the centre of the box.
Eric Dier came agonisingly close to breaking the deadlock just before the break, but his glancing header across goal from a Jordan Henderson corner bounced back off the left-hand upright, and Tottenham colleague Harry Kane nodded against the crossbar shortly after the restart.
England started to dominate play and Rashford should have put the visitors ahead after 55 minutes, but the flimsy finish with which he greeted an inviting Kyle Walker ball into the box left Dominik Livakovic with a comfortable save.
It got no better for Rashford two minutes later, when the Manchester United frontman failed to slot past the goalkeeper after being played through on goal by Raheem Sterling.
Southgate introduced debutant Jadon Sancho for the final 15 minutes, but the Borussia Dortmund attacker – England's second-youngest debutant in a competitive game after Duncan Edwards - was unable to make a match-winning impact.
What it means: England need win in Spain
Failure to win this match means England need three points from their clash with Spain in Seville on Monday to stand any chance of winning Group Four, as both sides sit five points adrift of Luis Enrique's men. A win for Spain in that match would end Croatia's hopes of topping the group.
18 - At 18 years and 201 days old, Jadon Sancho is the second youngest England player to win his first cap in a competitive game, behind only Duncan Edwards (18y 183d) in April 1955 against Scotland. Cub. pic.twitter.com/CskcTQ7wBm— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 12, 2018
Modric makes Croatia tick
His side may not have been at their best but World Cup Golden Ball winner Modric was still at the centre of everything good about Croatia.
No Croatian player played more passes in the opposition half or sent in more crosses than the Real Madrid midfielder, and he drew a save from Pickford with a fizzed shot from distance in the second half.
Rashford wastes his chances
United striker Rashford will be glad there was nobody in the ground to see his pair of missed opportunities just short of the hour mark.
A completely miscued finish was followed by a failure to test Livakovic from a glorious position, squandering two chances to hand England the lead.
England will be looking for a measure of revenge for a 2-1 defeat in their Nations League opener when they face Spain – a match Henderson will miss after picking up a sixth-minute booking – while Croatia welcome Jordan to Rijeka for a friendly that also takes place on Monday.