It was another ‘oh so near’ tale for Scotland, but their hopes of reaching a first major tournament since 1998 were cruelly dashed after an agonising 2-2 draw with Slovenia in Ljubljana on Sunday saw Slovakia finish in second place ahead of Scotland on mere goal difference after they comfortably saw off Malta 3-0 in Trnava.
The Scots came up short in the harshest manner, Leigh Griffiths sending the travelling contingent of Scottish supporters into delirium with an angled effort across Jan Oblak to give the Tartan Army lift off, but Slovenian substitute Roman Bezjak twice profited from some slack defending on set-piece situations to turn the game on its head.
Robert Snodgrass netted a late equaliser to offer Scotland hope, but despite Slovenia losing captain Bostjan Cesar to a red card on his 100th international appearance, they were unable to get the crucial third goal that would see them into the World Cup qualifying play-offs, ensuring that the wait for a first major tournament appearance this century goes on.
In itself, the result isn’t necessarily a bad one, with Slovenia having kept clean sheets in all of their previous home qualifiers in the group. However, as the nation is left to rue yet another near miss, which key talking points emerged from another agonising evening for Scottish football?
Sloppy defending at set-pieces costs Scotland dear
Scotland manager Gordon Strachan had highlighted the importance of remaining organised at the back in the face of Slovenia’s attacking presence, particularly at set-pieces with the height and strength that Srecko Katanec’s side have at their disposal.
At full-time, Strachan was left ruing the genetic backwardness of his team for their failure to get the three points required in Slovenia, but in truth, the goals they conceded were soft at best and could well have been avoided had his side not neglected to get the basics right at the most crucial of times.
The free-kick that led to Slovenia’s equaliser may have been a harsh one, Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson, an old adversary of Strachan, blowing up for a free-kick against Darren Fletcher for a soft foul on Josip Ilicic.
Ilicic himself took the free-kick toward the far post, guilty party Fletcher culpable for losing his man as Roman Bezjak stole a march on him to nod the ball home beyond the helpless Craig Gordon.
Others may point out the goalkeeper’s own error in perhaps not coming out to claim the ball inside his own six yard box, but with the Scottish defence lining up as deep as it did, Gordon was left with very little time or space to come out and claim. Coupled with Fletcher losing his marker, the self-destruct button had been pushed.
Scotland’s woes at the back didn’t end there. If the first was disappointing to give away, the second was almost criminal, Christophe Berra failing to connect with an incoming corner kick, and when the ball was laid to Bezjak, Katanec’s inspired substitution did the rest, calmly stroking the ball home through a crowd of players and into the bottom corner.
Even with Robert Snodgrass netting an equaliser it was too little too late, as the Scots were left needing two goals in eight minutes plus stoppage time to qualify for the playoffs; a proverbial mountain to climb. It was all a bridge too far in the end, but had they held their nerve and nailed the basics, it may well have been a different story.
Does Strachan’s 4-4-2 formation and starting line-up warrant scrutiny?
One means of Gordon Strachan setting up his side to combat Slovenia’s aerial presence was in the way he set-up his team going forward.
He could do little about his side’s individual errors at the back, but he opted for two up front in the shape of the impressive Leigh Griffiths and the imposing frame of Chris Martin, adding height to the attack to support Griffiths, an option to aim at with the diagonal ball, and to give Slovenia’s towering defenders a physical presence to worry about.
With Barry Bannan and Matt Phillips deployed as wide men to provide service to the forwards, the selection looked positive and initially paid off as Scotland weathered some early pressure before beginning to stamp their authority on the game. Fletcher was impressive in the midfield battle, whilst marauding full-backs Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney began to venture forward in support.
Once Scotland got the opening goal, they seemed to drop too deep and invite Slovenian pressure, which ultimately they proved unable to withstand.
Some would argue based on Robert Snodgrass’ impact, alongside the presence of other creative options such as Matt Ritchie and Callum McGregor that Strachan’s starting line-up was the wrong one. Given the start the Scots made, and the option to turn to the bench if required, the starting XI seems more an element that Strachan actually got right.
Snodgrass’ introduction in the 79th minute swung the game back in Scotland’s favour, but arguably he should have been thrown into the fray earlier for a more decisive impact. Then, only in the 80th did Strachan go for broke and introduce a third striker in Steven Fletcher. Having got his substitutions spot on against Slovakia at Hampden, he unfortunately seemed to come up short.
Ikechi Anya, his final change and provider of the winning goal in the Slovakia match, was his first roll of the dice in Ljubljana, following Bezjak netting the equaliser. The Derby County man was largely ineffective, but following his impact at Hampden, it is easy to relate to Strachan’s decision to turn to the pacey winger.
Where next for Strachan as Scots reflect on damaging start?
Strachan’s critics will be picking holes in his starting XI in Ljubljana, but many Scotland fans will be left ruing the poor start to the campaign which left the Tartan Army with a mountain to climb in the second half of the campaign in the first place.
Four games into the campaign Scotland had a meagre four points, a solitary win in Malta followed up by a disaster draw with Lithuania at Hampden before back-to-back 3-0 defeats away to Slovakia and England. Re-invigorated by a late Chris Martin winner at home to the Slovenes back in March, the Scots ended their campaign with a six-match unbeaten run, picking up 14 points from a possible 18 to remain unbeaten in 2017. But it was just too much to do.
Had Scotland held on for victory against England back in June, the two extra points would have seen them through, but with little expected from the tie with the eventual Group F winners, that draw with Lithuania looks the standout culprit.
And Strachan’s role in that slow, costly start to the campaign is coming under heavy scrutiny. Having revitalised Scotland at the end of an already doomed World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign, his first full campaign, the race to qualify for Euro 2016, had ended in heartbreak after a stoppage time Robert Lewandowski equaliser for Poland at Hampden Park denied Scotland a playoff berth.
Still reeling from that agonising exit, the renaissance was put on hold as Strachan tinkered with his side in search of a winning formula, to the detriment of his team’s results on the pitch. Now, with those lost points proving costly, the knives are out.
However, having seemingly learned his lessons and led Scotland through 2017 without defeat thus far, there is room to argue that Strachan deserves a third crack of the whip in trying to get Scotland to a major tournament.
Having seen his side benefit from a nucleus of players that regularly feature in Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic side, including breakthrough youngsters Kieran Tierney and Stuart Armstrong, there is a sense that now this Scotland team needs continuity in order to build on its progress over the past 11 months, rather than a more untimely overhaul which could see the Tartan Army go two steps back before going forwards again.
After all, they’ve been here before: Alex McLeish vacating the hot-seat following Scotland’s agonising 2007 loss to Italy (which saw them miss out on Euro 2008) sparked three campaigns of regression under George Burley and Craig Levein, and there is every chance that they could be heading back into the wilderness if the Scottish FA choose to dispense with Strachan’s services.
There is little talk of the football hierarchy in Scotland dismissing Strachan, but only time will tell whether the intense pressure from his critics will be enough for the former Celtic and Middlesbrough boss to throw in the towel himself.