At a colourful and impassioned Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening, Scotland got a taster of the type of showpiece occasion they hope to savour more of at next summer’s European Championships in France.
Whether they will get to do so remains very much in the balance after a hard-fought draw which boosted their hopes of beating Ireland to third place in Group D but simultaneously dented their prospects of finishing in one of the two automatic qualification spots.
More than 10,000 Tartan Army foot soldiers had made the short hop across the Irish Sea, with every city centre street seemingly awash with Saltires, kilts and beer as the Irish capital was subjected to the type of Caledonian invasion France would have to brace itself for in a year’s time if Scotland can somehow negotiate a testing three-game autumn sequence before finishing off with a gimme against Gibraltar in October.
Games away to Georgia and home to Germany and Poland will determine the Scots’ fate. Anything less than seven points from those will probably consign them to a play-off at best. It could easily have been a more desperate situation for the Scots, however, and they knew it judging by the celebratory scenes among the Tartan Army after their team, who were out on their feet towards the end, somehow eked out a point from a game where they were miles off their best and under the cosh for long periods.
Perhaps it was the lack of high-intensity action for most of Strachan’s players over the past month or so since the domestic season came to an end, or it may have been the fact that they’d convinced themselves that the onus was on Ireland to win the game and didn’t really feel a victory was particularly crucial to their prospects. Either way, Scotland’s players struggled to respond to the remarkable backing they received from their supporters inside the magnificent Aviva Stadium.
From the outset, Ireland, focused by the belief that only a win would suffice, were much more aggressive and purposeful than their visitors. Little Wes Hoolahan, their only maverick man in the absence of the injured Aiden McGeady, played with the type of menace that was lacking in his Scottish counterparts, Shaun Maloney, Matt Ritchie and Steven Naismith, while the pumped-up midfield trio of James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan and Jeff Hendrick were getting the better of Scots duo Scott Brown and James Morrison by both foul means and fair. The hosts were well worth their half-time lead, given to them by Jon Walters, albeit from an offside position, in the 38th minute.
Scotland needed a response in order to preserve genuine hopes of qualification, and they produced it straight after the break, when Maloney finally burst into life and pinged in a shot which deflected off John O’Shea and flew past Shay Given for the equaliser. The Scots were a slightly more impressive force in the second half, with substitute Ikechi Anya [for Ritchie] making a difference, but by the end it was the Irish who looked the likeliest winners as they peppered balls into the Scottish box and prompted Gordon Strachan to introduce centre-back Christophe Berra in place of attacker Naismith in order to see out a draw.
The visitors managed to hold firm and were content enough to make it four points from their two meetings with the Irish, whom they remain two points ahead of. “We’d like to have won the game but I think we’re quite pleased at the outcome after going away from home and going a goal down,” said Morrison. “If it comes down to head to head with Ireland, that means we’d come out on top, so we’re pleased with that. We didn’t play well in the first half but we knew that we had a lot of time to get back into it. We rallied at half-time, got the perfect start to the second half and once we started playing our football, I felt we were on top.”
While Scotland only showed their capabilities in flashes in the second half, Morrison was heartened by the way his side stood up to a robust challenge from the Irish. “They were hitting long balls and crosses all game and I think that was the only way they were going to score,” he said. “When they’ve got physical players like they have you’ve got to expect that approach, so it was disappointing that they scored from a set-piece. When we were lining up at the start you could see from the size of them that it was going to be a hard game physically. We stood up to them though and then got going a bit in the second half. If we’d taken a bit more care with our final pass we could have created a few more chances.”
Although there wasn’t a great deal of quality on show from either side, Morrison feels the war of attrition made for compelling entertainment for both sets of supporters. “The game was played in a great manner and I’m sure they’d have enjoyed the passion and the fight both teams showed. The lads don’t mind a few hard challenges going in and I think that’s what fans still like to see as well.”
With Ireland’s players having tuned up with a high-profile friendly against England as Scotland faced the minnows of Qatar the previous weekend, Morrison felt a lack of match sharpness ahead of such a high-stakes encounter was a factor in his side’s average performance. “It was quite hard having the break and not playing pretty much for three weeks,” said the West Brom midfielder. “The lads in the Championship must have found it even harder because they finished well over a month ago. I don’t know why we couldn’t have played the game earlier in the season – it would have been an even better game. The lads were dead on their feet in the last ten, 20 minutes.”
In the end, relief was the chief emotion among the weary Scottish players and their embattled supporters as they made their way out of the Aviva Stadium with their French dream still alive.