How detrimental might recent draws be to Scotland and Wales' qualification prospects?
Scotland’s 1-1 draw with Lithuania was a result that hardly anybody expected at Hampden Park on Saturday night, but Hull City midfielder Robert Snodgrass, who featured on the night, insisted in an interview with BBC Sport that it would not prove to be another “Georgia moment” in the qualification prospects of the Tartan Army in this latest campaign, the race to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
A defeat in Tbilisi last September proved detrimental to Scotland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2016 this summer, and it was the same opponents who helped foil them the last time they came so close, Alex McLeish’s Scotland slipping to another damaging defeat in Tbilisi way back in 2007, before Italy put the nail in the coffin at Hampden Park soon after.
Quite appropriate that this should be labelled a Georgia moment, as they themselves set about causing trouble for another Home Nation. This time, it was Chris Coleman’s high-flying Wales who were the victims, letting a 1-0 lead slip at home to draw 1-1 after being pegged back by Tornike Okriashvili’s 57th minute header, and were in the end lucky to have come out with a point after Georgia squandered several good opportunities.
Focusing on Scotland first, James McArthur’s 89th minute leveller eventually spared their blushes after they fell behind to Fedor Cernych’s goal 14 minutes after the break, but they have almost definitely missed an opportunity to capitalise following their dream start in Malta. Failing to win means that Home Nation rivals and group fvourites England now sit two points clear at the top of the group, with Scotland yet to face them and Slovenia.
First on the agenda however are winless Slovakia away from home Tuesday night, who nonetheless are a threat despite back-to-back defeats in their opening two matches. With Slovenia, level on four points with second placed Scotland in Qualifying Group F, playing host to leaders England, following Scotland’s stumble in their opening home fixture, they will now be under added pressure to take points from Slovakia- whose coach Jan Kozak has already declared it as a must win clash for his team.
Losing to Slovakia would not only dampen Scottish hopes of picking up points from elsewhere, but it may be the start of a vicious cycle of leaving their qualification hopes to chance, particularly given that gaining anything from their games against England would be a bonus. Though after Lithuania managed an impressive opening draw at home to Slovenia before holding the Scots to a stalemate, they can rest assured that they may well take points from others and leave the group tight enough for Scotland to take advantage with wins against other teams in a group where twists and turns are likely.
But in order to do that, and to have any hope of beating the Slovaks on their own turf, they must create more in front of goal. Despite having numerous chances on goal against Lithuania at Hampden, all too few actually hit the target and goalkeeper Ernestas Setkus wasn’t really called into any spectacular action.
Grant Hanley, Callum Paterson and Chris Martin all had chances. Leigh Griffiths spurned a header and James Forrest fluffed his lines with the goal almost at his mercy. But more worryingly is that visitors Lithuania had opportunities to score more.
Fedor Cernych could have helped himself to a brace as a route one long-ball bypassed the entire Scotland defence and a three-against-two counter attack late on may well have left the Scots with nothing to show for their efforts against a more clinical outfit. Defensive lapses and being all too predictable going forward did Gordon Strachan’s men no favours whatsoever, and if they are to do the hard work and come out on top then they now have to be able to take points from difficult places or risk losing touch with the leaders and perhaps even with second place and a chance of the playoff round, which would still leave them in with a shout at reaching Russia.
On the other hand, in Group D, Welsh fans will need no reminding of how damaging that home draw against the Georgians might prove to be.
After all their hard work in Vienna in the week to take a point from second seeds and main rivals Austria, their hard work was undone by a lacklustre home performance, when really they needed a win which would have ensured four precious points were in the bank from the double header and kept their momentum in the group going. However, in a group as tight as the one they find themselves in, they gave their opponents the chance to capitalise.
And so they did, Serbia overcame Austria with a 3-2 win in Belgrade and the Republic of Ireland ran out 2-1 winners in Moldova. Both leapfrog Wales to go first and second in the group on seven points, leaving Wales in third with five and Austria fourth with four points. With daunting away trips to Belgrade and Dublin also yet to come for Wales, dropping points at home will be an unwelcome setback.
But is was the manner in which they did it which will concern Chris Coleman. They seized the initiative early on with a strike from Gareth Bale, and their quick and incisive passing stretched Georgia as the hosts looked like running riot at the Cardiff City Stadium, but it soon became apparent in Wales’ overly-comfortable play that they were content to sit on a 1-0 lead and the intensity began to diminish. More and more they were found wanting in possession and slack in defence, and when they were punished by Okriashvili’s header, the so often choral Cardiff City Stadium was reduced to silence.
Despite Coleman throwing on all three substitutes and urging his men forward, Wales were unable to capitalise and near the end they were almost picked off on the counter by Georgia, who grew in confidence as the game wore on and almost claimed the scalp of the top seeds were it not for Levan Mchedlidze wasting a glorious chance when through on goal and Valeri Kazaishvili’s 20-yard snapshot crashing back off the upright.
Wales looked tired and fleeting in their attempts to salvage a much-needed win, but did miss the influence of Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey in midfield, the return of whom will add some much needed creativity into the Welsh midfield. Defensively though, they looked vulnerable against a dogged Georgian outfit, with Jano Ananidze in particular a thorn in the side of the Welsh defence, and when they pushed forward at 1-1, they were all over the place as Georgia broke forward on the counter with intent, and the hosts against more ruthless and higher calibre opposition may well have been punished for their carelessness.
Georgia are now unbeaten in their last four encounters with Wales, and it is only the second time since 2012 they have avoided defeat away from home in a competitive fixture. They were to their credit well worth their point, and Wales will need to improve for their next qualifier in mid-November as current group leaders Serbia visit Cardiff. A point would not be a disaster for Wales, but after a shock draw against the Georgians, they are now playing catch up, and would do well to start picking up points sooner rather than later to get their campaign back on track, for even if the Welsh come out on top against the Serbs, an Irish win over Austria would still see the Republic ahead of them in the one automatic qualification place.
Given Austria’s standing as number two seeds however, there is always the chance they might do Wales a favour against the Republic of Ireland, but even that would prove a setback if the Welsh fail to take maximum points from the Serbia clash. It is by no means a damaging result, but it may make their job just that little bit harder. However, they let crucial home points slip in their last qualification campaign and managed to get the points in the tough games that mattered, and it seems that they may just have to do it the hard way again.
Two Home Nations, two negative home draws which leaves them with work to do early on. For Wales, it would be their first ever back-to-back qualification for a major tournament, their third major championship appearance overall and their first World Cup since 1958, and they are very much, it seems, it the midst of a golden generation. Scotland have not qualified for any major showpiece since 1998, and now they are faced with the need to take points from difficult games if their most recent result is anything to go by. How they could do with 2018 being the year they end their wait. Only time will tell if one or both of these sides can end their World Cup exiles.
Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by George Mackenzie.
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