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.
Chancel Mbemba’s move to Celtic could be another success story for the Scottish top flight
Tyneside hero Rafael Benitez has successfully maintained Newcastle United‘s Premier League status and the 58-year-old manager is already planning on a summer clear-out.
One of the players who has been linked with an exit from the club is talented defender Chancel Mbemba, who, according to the Chronicle, is being linked with a move to Celtic.
The 23-year-old has fallen out of favour with Benitez, despite starting positively under Steve Mclaren, since his move from Anderlecht in 2015.
The centre-back has made just 19 league starts for the Magpies this season and has not featured for the club since January when Newcastle were beaten by Chelsea in the FA Cup.
The move would be perfect for Celtic, and would also be great for the Scottish Premier League, with the addition of a talented defender, who still has more to show from his time in North-East England.
Celtic are on course for another treble under Brendan Rodgers with the Hoops lining up against Motherwell on Saturday in the Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park.
Despite the focus being purely on getting his sixth trophy as Celtic manager, the former Liverpool boss can be forgiven for already thinking about next season considering his former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has just taken over the reigns at Ibrox.
Mbemba was one of the stand-out players in his first season at Newcastle and Rodgers has become a manager famous for specialising in getting the best of young talents.
The likes of Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembele are all talents who are thriving under the Northern Irish manager and Mbemba could be another success story when it comes to the Scottish top flight attracting the most promising of youngsters.
The Congo international is still relatively experienced and has still has the early years of his career to hone his talents. Under the right manager, he could be one of the standout players in a dominant Celtic team.
Mbemba’s omission from the first team has been one of the few disagreements fans have shared with their Spanish messiah and a his exit could ultimately come back to haunt Benitez.
Considering Rodgers impact when it comes to developing talent, his impact on Mbemba could see Newcastle fans ruing the Belgian defender’s departure.
Three talking points as Scotland’s World Cup dreams were crushed in Slovenia
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.
Scotland vs England: World Cup Qualifier match preview, likely line-ups and score prediction
On Saturday evening two old rivals will meet again at Hampden Park as Scotland seek revenge over the ‘Auld Enemy’ after they fell to an embarrassing 3-0 thrashing at Wembley in November in a major blow to their hopes of World Cup qualification with this fixture potentially proving decisive for both sides.
Both sides are in Group F for this World Cup qualifying campaign, but it is England who are in the far better position with five games played. The Three Lions are unbeaten, with four wins and a 0-0 draw away against Slovenia, meaning that they currently top the group on 13 points.
Scotland do not possess such a strong position as they find themselves in fourth, in a group of six, on seven points and two behind Slovakia in their pursuit of a play-off place if they cannot catch their southerly neighbours. A win over Malta was expected, whilst another win against Slovenia and a draw with Lithuania did little to make fans believe that they can expect a trip to Russia next summer.
Gordon Strachan is likely to name an unchanged line-up from the one that impressed against Slovenia with a 1-0 win in their last qualifier in March, although he has recognised the power of the confidence that his squad members from Celtic may have after an unbeaten season and having won a cup title only weeks ago.
England’s major injury doubts have seen Jamie Vardy and Nathaniel Clyne both withdraw from the squad, allowing Harry Kane to be confident of a start with Kyle Walker likely to get the nod over Kieran Trippier at right-back. Dele Alli will continue in the number 10 role in Wayne Rooney’s absence from the squad.
Score Prediction: Scotland 1-3 England
These end of season internationals always tend to be a disappointment, but this rivalry should heat things up just a little bit. Scotland lack quality and organisation, but England will need to turn up if they are going to see them off at their home stadium. No complacency can be afforded here.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Ai Kagou.
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