Within a matter of hours of kick-starting their bid to make it to Euro 2016, Scotland were given a stark reminder of just how treacherous these qualifying campaigns can be.
After safely negotiating their first “must-win” match of the ten-game series with a display which was electrifying at times, and occasionally exasperating, Gordon Strachan and his team should have been able to wallow in the satisfaction of a job well done against Georgia as they recuperated at their Mar Hall base on Saturday night.
News, however, of one of their main rivals, Poland, unexpectedly putting world champions Germany to the sword, suddenly made the European Championships in France seem that bit further away than when the buoyant Scotland players were boarding the bus to leave Ibrox just before 8pm on Saturday.
Any momentary sense of deflation at seeing the Poles steal a significant march on them won’t have been allowed to linger, though. For all that Saturday’s surprise result in Warsaw was an undoubted setback to their qualification hopes, the Scotland players have so much belief at present that they will be confident of reversing any advantage the Poles have gained by beating them on their own patch tomorrow night.
“The lads in the dressing room are buzzing,” said captain Scott Brow, pictured below. “We have great belief. If you look around that dressing room you see top quality players and top quality players coming on. It gives you that bit extra when you see quality players like James McArthur coming on in midfield and big Chris Martin coming on up front.”
Scotland jetted out to the Polish capital this morning buoyed by further evidence that they are a team who have the ability to attack with flair. A month after giving the Germans a fright with a fearless second-half display in Dortmund, the vibrant Scots made it an uncomfortable Saturday evening in Glasgow for the stuffy but powder-puff Georgians. Whether through their own limitations or as a result of Scotland’s high-energy, fast-tempo play, Temuri Ketsbaia’s team barely made a notable foray out of their own half in the first hour.
The Scots, having carved out several good opportunities, should have put the match to bed long before the Georgians, whose slender hopes of qualification were effectively being ended just two games in, started to make things nervy for the hosts in the closing stages.
Strachan’s side certainly weren’t found wanting in the creativity department. In Alan Hutton and Andy Robertson, they had full-backs effectively operating as wingers at times, and Georgia were simply overwhelmed in the first half. In attack, Steven Fletcher produced arguably his best display in a dark blue jersey, acting as an effective focal point for the rest of his marauding colleagues and laying on no shortage of opportunities with his impressive link-up play.
“The front four’s movement has been a joy to watch,” said Brown of Fletcher, Steven Naismith, Shaun Maloney and Ikechi Anya. “The more they move the easier it is for James [Morrison] and I to find them.”
Maloney looked hungry to impress after earning a recall to the starting line-up and it was the Wigan man whose shot from the edge of the box brought the only goal of the game when it was saved by Giorgi Loria and ricocheted in off Akaki Khubutia after 28 minutes.
That should have been the cue for the hosts to make hay. To an extent they did, with some refreshingly swashbuckling football either side of half time. Strachan suggested afterwards that the first hour was the best he had seen from his team. In terms of dominating an opponent he was probably right, although the paucity of the Georgians, who were clearly short of belief and any genuine quality, made it difficult to gauge just how good the Scots were.
Certainly, they will have to be more ruthless if they are to have a hope of triumphing in Poland tomorrow. Naismith, the on-song Everton forward, appeared to have left his shooting boots in Merseyside as he spurned three excellent close-range chances to make the game safe. Morrison, preferred over Darren Fletcher as Brown’s central midfield partner, also missed a golden opportunity to add a second late on, just minutes after Georgian substitute Irakli Dzaria gave the Scots a huge fright when he drilled his side’s only clear chance of the match inches wide from just inside the box.
“The win was the main thing,” added Brown. “We got three points and they were three important points. We created a lot of chances and we were just unlucky not to hit the back of the net with a few more of them. I think we played really well for maybe 60 or 70 minutes. As always happens when you are just 1-0 up, you seem to drop deeper and deeper.”
Perhaps to put things into context about just how unforgiving this qualifying section could be, if Dzaria’s effort had gone in, Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for the Euros would have been all but over after two games. So far they have done all that could have reasonably have been expected of them in terms of losing gallantly in Germany and beating Georgia fairly comfortably at home.
The major concern for the Scots is that the Poles and Irish are also clearly up for the fight and are both sitting on maximum points with healthy goal differences from their respective 7-0 wins over Gibraltar. Margin for error is minimal to non-existant for the Scots if they are serious about finishing in the top two and qualifying automatically. Defeat against the Poles tomorrow would certainly kill off any feelgood factor generated by their first meaningful competitive win for several years. By the same token, a victory in Warsaw, where they won 1-0 in a friendly back in March, would have the Scots sitting pretty ahead of their visit from the Irish next month.
“It will be a different game over in Poland and we have to adapt to that,” said Brown, who scored the winner in the friendly seven months ago. “Obviously they are going to have a bit more of the ball than Georgia did, so we are going to have to alter our formation. The back four were brilliant against Georgia. But we defended really well from the front backwards so we can take encouragement from that going into the Poland game.
“Poland have some great players, but when you look around the dressing room you can see that we do as well. If we can get a result in Poland, the belief will go through the roof. But we don’t want to go overboard just now.”
For all that Scotland are moving in the right direction, Saturday night’s unforeseen events in Warsaw show that the journey to France certainly won’t be a smooth one.