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.
“Terrible, terrible manager”: West Ham fans lose patience with David Moyes
Drawing with Stoke City was a disappointing result which brought West Ham firmly back to earth after seeing off Southampton and then drawing at Stamford Bridge, but fans pointed the finger at one man in particular: David Moyes.
The former Everton, Manchester United and Sunderland boss opted to retain the same starting line-up that took a point from Chelsea and used the same 5-4-1 system, deploying Marko Arnautovic as a makeshift centre-forward.
On home turf against second from bottom Stoke City, the conservative set up almost ended in catastrophe as Joe Hart’s calamitous error allowed Peter Crouch to give his side the lead before Andy Carroll’s last gasp equaliser.
Fans did not hide their displeasure on Twitter…
Rescuing a point should not hide the fact David Moyes set up with a 541 against 19th place and the team who has conceded the most this season (at home) and is a terrible, terrible manager. Only ever makes a change when you fall behind instead of going for it.
— West Ham News (@whufc_news) April 16, 2018
Bilic is miles better than Moyes
— West Ham Transfers (@westhamtransfer) April 16, 2018
If Carroll hadn't have scored that, we would've gone down and Moyes would've remained a living meme with no reputation. Moyes owes Carroll unlimited drinks, bags of cocaine and a ride on his wife and daughter
— Cartlon Cole (@_CarltonCole9) April 16, 2018
Moyes’ unshakeable conservatism almost cost West Ham the game and god knows what else tonight. Made substitutions at least 15 minutes too late and ultimately lucky to escape with a point. Still far from convinced
— Dan Silver (@dansilver_) April 16, 2018
My conclusion tonight:
•Rice superb as usual.
•Hernandez needed to start.
•Moyes needed to make subs far earlier.
•Hart is England’s No 246
•Moyes needs to go!
•Oh but it’s ok as we’ve got flags waved around at half-time.
— Katie (@flump9) April 16, 2018
5221 v Stoke at home.
Stoke are 19th in the fucking league.
Anyone who wants to keep Moyes needs the cyanide. #MoyesOut
— West Ham Transfers (@westhamtransfer) April 16, 2018
The Scot’s contract is set to run until the summer with safety still not secured for the Hammers, who have been brought right back into the fight by drawing against the Potters.
It could have been worse for the Irons had David Moyes not looked to his bench, where he first deployed the hero at Chelsea, Javier Hernandez, but even then not until the 77th minute.
Playmaker Manuel Lanzini joined in with only nine minutes left on the clock and Andy Carroll, who proved to be the equaliser, was only given four minutes of normal time plus injury time.
With fixtures coming up against the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United before the season is out, fans were baffled by the decision to go quite so defensive in a must win game at the London Stadium.
Now, West Ham are seven points from safety with five games left to play but only face opposition against top half sides, with a trip to face Leicester City and Sam Allardyce’s return on the final day of the season with Everton completing the club’s fixture list.
Crystal Palace 2-3 Manchester United: Three talking points from Selhurst Park
The Red Devils mounted an incredible comeback at Selhurst Park.
Nemanja Matic scored a dramatic stoppage-time winner as Manchester United overturned a two-goal deficit to inflict more pain on struggling Crystal Palace. Matic fired home from 25 yards to complete a memorable comeback from United, whose victory helped them regain second spot in the Premier League. Palace, meanwhile, remain in the relegation zone after slipping to their third successive defeat.
Selhurst Park was rocking when Andros Townsend put the hosts ahead via a huge deflection, before Patrick van Aanholt doubled their lead shortly after the break. However, Chris Smalling gave United hope 10 minutes later and the visitors then restored parity through Romelu Lukaku. With time ebbing away the draw looked inevitable, only for Matic to break Palace’s hearts with his first goal for the club. Here are three talking points…
Palace’s survival hopes suffer a hammer blow
A week earlier, the Eagles thought they had earned a vital point against Spurs in their battle to avoid the drop. That was until Harry Kane popped up to snatch victory with practically the last touch of the game. A sense of deja-vu was palpable when, after another encouraging performance against one of the top-flight’s heavyweights, Matic ensured Palace went home empty-handed. It was a monumental body blow.
Roy Hodgson’s side had belied their lowly league position and taken the attack to United, deservedly assuming complete control. Had the score remained at 2-0, Palace would have been as high as 13th in the table. But United’s comeback, which left Hodgon and his players visibly deflated, means they are 18th, one point adrift of safety with an inferior goal difference. Although the performance was a positive one, the result leaves the South London club deep in the mire.
Mourinho buoyed as United show resilience
For all the talk about how this has been a disappointing campaign for United, they leapfrogged Liverpool into second place as a result of this stunning victory. Jose Mourinho’s men exhibited substantial amounts of steel in doing so. They faced a real test of character, having fallen behind against a team fighting for their lives. It looked like a mountainous task, but United fought their way back into the game before snatching all three points at the death.
This was the first time since 2013 that the Red Devils had clawed back a two-goal deficit to win a Premier League match. Of all their victories this season, perhaps this one will please Mourinho the most. Any divisions are quickly exposed when teams find themselves in trouble. But the way United stuck to their task was a big statement at a key stage of the season. It should give Mourinho belief that his side can see off the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in the battle to finish runners-up.
Hodgson desperate for Wilfried Zaha’s return
Hodgson has previously tried to dismiss its significance, but Palace’s inability to win without Wilfried Zaha cannot be passed off as an anomaly. The Eagles have lost every single one of the nine Premier League games in which the 25-year-old has not featured this season, scoring only one goal in the process. For a while it looked as though that alarming record would be consigned to the history books, until United mounted an inspired comeback.
Zaha is clearly a talented individual whose absence would affect any team’s potency, but Palace’s over-reliance on him must be very concerning. The Ivory Coast international is currently sidelined through a knee injury and although he is back in light training, Hodgson has put no timeframe on his return to the fold. It’s no exaggeration to argue the Eagles’ survival aspirations depend on him.
Leicester City 1-1 Bournemouth: Three talking points from the King Power
Mahrez, who had been heavily linked with a move to Manchester City in the January transfer window, curled the ball past Asmir Begovic from 30 yards to deny the Cherries victory in a grandstand finish at the King Power Stadium.
Joshua King had given Bournemouth a first-half lead when he stepped up to dispatch a spot-kick after being fouled inside the area.
The Foxes threw everything at their opponents in the second period but had to wait until deep into added-time for a dramatic equaliser.
Here are three talking points…
Redemption for Mahrez after troubling period
The Algerian’s attempts to engineer a switch to City and subsequent failure to report to training had not been well received by Leicester supporters.
Mahrez had been a key figure in the Foxes’ phenomenal Premier League title triumph two years ago, but his reputation suffered a battering when he made it clear he saw his future away from the club.
After a difficult period for all involved, Mahrez is back in the fold and now back in the fans’ good books.
His last-minute goal against the Cherries certainly was evidence of his redemption.
Thirty yards out, the 27-year-old started the ball outside the wall and watched it bend back past Begovic’s outstretched right hand.
Leicester, who have never beaten Bournemouth in the top-flight, are winless in five Premier League matches, but they remain eighth in the table.
With Mahrez’s reintegration seemingly complete, a fruitful finish to the season could even help them push for a European place.
Howe ‘disgusted’ as Bournemouth concede so late
Bournemouth’s backs had been firmly up against the wall in the second half as they sought to hold on to their tenuous advantage.
It looked to have been a worthwhile effort until Mahrez’s moment of magic.
A share of the spoils was probably fair in the context of the game, but Cherries manager Eddie Howe admitted he felt ‘disgusted’ after watching the visitors concede so late.
Only four minutes of stoppage-time had been scheduled, but an injury to Simon Francis as well as a substitution meant referee Lee Probert played nearly double that amount.
Despite missing out on what would have been a crucial win, Bournemouth are edging towards safety.
They have lost only once since Christmas, a run that has helped them climb out of the relegation zone and amass 33 points.
Two more victories from their remaining nine fixtures should be enough to secure Premier League football for a fourth successive campaign.
Summer will be a key time for both clubs
In a league that is dominated by the so-called ‘Big Six’, the primary aim of the other 14 clubs is survival.
As mentioned above, both Leicester and Bournemouth are all but guaranteed to be playing in the top-flight next season.
The question for both in the summer will be, how can they push on?
The first job for the Foxes’ hierarchy and manager Claude Puel will be deciding the future of Mahrez.
Do they cash in on their star player and reinvest the funds into the squad, or do they try to tie him down to a new contract?
Bournemouth’s ambitions are perhaps not as high as Leicester’s, but after finishing ninth last season, another mid-table position will consolidate their status as a bona fide Premier League outfit.
On the field, there may be some significant outgoings as Howe looks to freshen his resources.
The out-of-favour Harry Arter is one player who looks likely to leave the south coast.
Off the field, the club will hope its plans for a new stadium get closer to becoming a reality.
Fans react on Twitter to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic performance
Fulham homecoming for Mousa Dembele would suit both parties this summer
Marcos Rojo considering Manchester United future; Everton should swoop
Rafa Benitez should plot Fernando Torres reunion at Newcastle United
Rectifying Patrick Bamford departure would be superb Nottingham Forest business
Manchester United11 hours ago
Fans react on Twitter to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic performance
Wolverhampton Wanderers7 hours ago
Goncalo Guedes and Andre Gomes would make Wolves top-six contenders
Everton21 hours ago
Everton fans react as Hirving Lozano puts Germany to the sword
Everton10 hours ago
Marvin Plattenhardt performance v Mexico will not convince Everton fans
Tottenham Hotspur23 hours ago
Matias Vecino is not the man to replace Mousa Dembele for Tottenham Hotspur
Leeds United24 hours ago
Leeds United should target Marcelo Bielsa teacher’s pet Stephane Sparagna
Newcastle United7 hours ago
Newcastle United should rekindle Miguel Layun interest after stunning World Cup performance
Tottenham Hotspur9 hours ago
Daniel Levy right not to splash £75m on inconsistent Anthony Martial