Scotland have developed a handy tendency of notching late goals this qualifying campaign, but as time ticked away on Thursday night and the game remained goalless, it seemed for long periods at Hampden Park that once again when they needed it the most, the crucial goal just wouldn’t come.
The feeling that their campaign was set for another sickening, gut-wrenching end must have seemed all the more inevitable as the match wore on. Try as they might, Scotland were simply unable to break the deadlock against ten-man Slovakia, who’d seen Robert Mak given his marching orders following a second yellow card in the first-half for simulation.
Leigh Griffiths and Chris Martin both saw spectacular efforts from range come off the woodwork, whilst Slovak goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka was a colossus in goal, producing a string of stunning saves to deny Christophe Berra, Leigh Griffiths and James Morrison the goal that the Tartan Army so desperately craved.
But with just seconds left of the 90 minutes, Gordan Strachan’s men produced another late show to keep their hopes of the World Cup qualifying playoffs alive, sending the Scots into delirium ahead of Sunday’s final crunch match with Slovenia.
It was a combination of two substitutes that produced the goods for Scotland, and it was Derby County duo Ikechi Anya and Chris Martin who provided it, the latter – who’d re-ignited Scotland’s campaign with a late winner over Slovenia at Hampden back in March – sliding in at the near post from Anya’s low cross to bundle the ball over the line with help from Slovakia skipper Martin Skrtel to lift the roof off a jubilant and above all relieved Hampden Park.
The result puts Scotland into second place in European qualifying Group F, two points ahead of Slovakia and three ahead of Sunday’s opponents Slovenia. Bearing in mind that the Slovaks face a home match against bottom-of-the-group Malta in their final qualifying fixture, it is likely that they will take all three points, meaning ultimately that only a win will do in Ljubljana for Scotland, especially so given Slovakia’s superior head-to-head record over the Tartan Army.
However, another late show from Scotland will have once more stoked the flames of optimism, and the momentum is firmly with the Scots after this latest last-gasp triumph: a fourth win in five qualifying matches which has given them real hope of reaching their first major tournament in 20 years.
But what did we learn from a thrilling night at Hampden as Scotland pulled a result out of the fire, once again, to head to Slovenia needing just one more win to cement second place and with it, perhaps, a chance to reach Russia?
Strange substitutes come up trumps for Strachan’s Scotland
With the match deadlocked and Scotland in desperate need of a winner, even the most optimistic of Scotland supporters might have held their head in their hands when Strachan eventually rang the changes in the second half.
Chris Martin was thrown into the fray to add an extra body up front to support Leigh Griffiths, but with Celtic’s James Forrest making way, who had featured out on the right for most of the game, Scotland immediately seemed to lose some of their width as the Slovaks dug in and managed to make up ground in the hosts’ half.
Darren Fletcher, in for the injured Scott Brown, had done well bolstering the midfield in the Celtic skipper’s absence, but he was hauled off with roughly 20 minutes remaining for James McArthur, with Ikechi Anya coming on as Strachan’s last roll of the dice in place of right-back on the night, Kieran Tierney.
With Callum McGregor, John McGinn, Steven Naismith, Tom Cairney and Matt Ritchie all amongst Scotland’s options on the bench, many in attendance would be forgiven for scratching their heads at Strachan’s decision-making. None will be doubting him now though, Derby County teammates Martin and Anya producing the goods by combining for the winner.
Martin was actually unfortunate not to have grabbed himself a goal shortly after coming on, shifting the ball out from under his feet and onto his right foot before taking aim from around 25-yards, only to see his shot cannon back off the crossbar. He could also consider himself unlucky to have not grabbed an assist shortly after, with a splendid back-heel flick into Morrison whose point blank effort was beaten away by the excellent Dúbravka.
For all the pressure that was mounting on Gordon Strachan prior to Scotland’s salvaging show this campaign, there will surely be many breathing a sigh of relief that he kept his job after all.
Full-backs look the part once again
There has been much talk of the positive impact that the nucleus of Celtic stars has had on the national team. One of these young stars that has recently broken into the Scotland side is none other than full-back Kieran Tierney.
A left-back by trade, but possessing remarkable versatility and an ability to adapt to other positions, including right-back, where he featured on Thursday, Tierney put in a composed and mature performance akin to that of a player beyond his years. On the opposite flank, Andrew Robertson, recently signed by Liverpool, was equally solid and a threat going forward.
Both players have gone from strength to strength since entering the international fold and look like they may become regular features in this Scotland side. With Tierney now enjoying precious game time for the Bhoys in the Champions League, and the same opportunity beckoning for Robertson once he establishes himself in the Liverpool team, there looks to be plenty of room for improvement yet. A scary prospect for any opposition.
Celtic influence in abundance whilst stand-ins shine in Brown and Armstrong absence
Losing the creativity of Stuart Armstrong and the grit of Scott Brown through injury ahead of this international break was a major blow for the Scots, with both having played their part in Scotland’s resurgence in the latter half of their qualifying campaign.
Yet, the positive influence that Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic has had on the national team since the turn of the year was there for all to see again tonight, with Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon and former Hoop Charlie Mulgrew always looking to bring the ball out from the back, with Scotland visibly employing the same possession based, build from the back style, rather than lumping the ball forward in the hope of getting in behind thanks to the pace they possess in attack and out wide.
Another Celtic starlet, James Forrest, slotted into the space vacated by Armstrong, and caused Slovakia several issues down the right flank, wearing down the visitors’ back four before being hauled off in favour of Anya as Strachan looked to inject some extra bite into the attack late on.
A special mention must go to Stoke City midfielder Darren Fletcher, who slotted seamlessly back into the Scotland midfield despite not offering the same tough-tackling presence that Brown provides, and he stuck to Slovakia’s star-man Marek Hamsik like glue to keep him quiet.
Even when the Napoli midfielder kept finding space and made supporting runs to help Slovakia on the counter following Mak’s dismissal, Fletcher channelled all his experience from his days at Manchester United, West Brom and with the national team down the years to shadow Hamsik superbly and ensure that he couldn’t exert his maximum influence on the game.
The dynamism of Celtic’s Kieran Tierney has already been the subject of much talk in the Scottish ranks as he impressed once again out of his natural left-back position, but Leigh Griffiths enjoyed another fine night as the focal point of Scotland’s attack.
He was a menace for the Slovakia defence throughout the contest, drawing a fine stop from Dúbravka before Hampden hearts skipped a beat when he took aim with a free-kick from outside the box and saw his effort crash off the woodwork. A moment which the Tartan Army will have held in the same esteem as his two strikes against England had it rippled the back of the net, but tonight it was a teammate’s turn to be the hero.
With Hampden in pandemonium at full-time on Thursday night, one couldn’t help but notice the Scottish FA’s ‘This Time’ motto emblazoned above the players’ tunnel. The champagne isn’t on ice yet, but maybe, just maybe, this time is destined to be Scotland’s time.