Most Scotland fans beforehand would have happily accepted a gallant one-goal defeat in Germany on Sunday, safe in the knowledge that the world champions would likely account for each of their group rivals later in the campaign.
However, while the performance from Gordon Strachan’s side was as impressive as could reasonably have been hoped for, the sense of frustration over the point they felt got away was exacerbated by the sight of both Poland and Ireland – their main rivals for second place in the section – getting off to the type of rousing starts which can lay the foundations for a successful qualifying push.
Although there was an understandable sense of grievance in the Scottish camp over some contentious refereeing decisions, it is highly unlikely that any of Svein Oddar Moen’s baffling calls would have had much of a bearing on the final outcome. Instead, the most significant occurrence by far in the group’s opening round of games came in Tbilisi when Aiden McGeady’s magnificent late goal turned an underwhelming draw for Ireland into a potentially crucial three points.
It is moments like that which can swing the mood of a nation. In one fell swoop, the Everton winger banished any fears of a hangover from the last disappointing campaign and sparked Martin O’Neill’s reign into life. The Irish can now look forward to their October double-header, at home to Gibraltar and away to Germany, knowing that Poland and Scotland will be under additional pressure to come away with victories of their own when they make the hazardous trip to Georgia later in the campaign. The Irish press pack can be a vociferous bunch when things aren’t going well for the national team and wouldn’t have taken kindly to a slip-up in a game against the second-lowest ranked team in the section. O’Neill’s side now look certain to be sitting on six points after two games, meaning they – like the Scots on Sunday –can treat their trip to Gelsenkirchen next month as a bonus-point game.
Poland’s 7-0 triumph over Gibraltar was less significant in terms of the dynamic of the group, although their Sunday night stroll in the Algarve shouldn’t be dismissed as irrelevant. Regardless of the weakness of Gibraltar, Scotland have rarely been able to make such mincemeat of Europe’s minnows.
Had the Poles laboured to a two-goal victory against the probable whipping boys of the section, they would have come under pressure from their media and supporters, and would also have relinquished an early opportunity to boost their goal difference, which could be a factor when the dust settles in 13 months.
Scotland themselves know all about the benefits of kicking off with a ruthless demolition job after a 6-0 win over the Faroe Islands eight years ago laid the foundations for a rousing – but ultimately fruitless – tilt at qualification for Euro 2008.
With the Irish and the Poles having blown away the cobwebs from their grim World Cup qualifying campaigns, the pressure has now been cranked up on Scotland to turn their promise into points when they welcome Georgia and travel to Poland next month. Anything less than four points from those two games and Strachan’s team will find themselves chasing their tail.
The Ibrox showdown with the Georgians is a particularly high-stakes match for the Scots. Strachan said last week that it would be a four-way battle between Scotland, Poland, Ireland and Georgia to follow Germany out of the section, but the Georgians are unlikely to be consistent enough to mount a genuine challenge.
In one-off games, however, they are sure to prove pesky opponents and are exactly the type of dangerous Eastern European nation that Scotland routinely toil against.
Even at their buoyant best under Alex McLeish in 2007, the Scots found Georgia a tough nut to crack at Hampden before losing to them in Tbilisi. Despite the encouraging display in Germany and the increasing sense of optimism, Scotland, through no fault of their own, are already on the back foot in the battle to make it to France.
Poland and Ireland have shown they mean business; the onus is now on the Scots to respond next month and ensure the hard-earned feelgood factor isn’t allowed to ebb away.