SOME fine goalkeeping by Jack Hamilton couldn’t prevent Scotland’s European Under-21 Championship hopes suffering a huge blow in France last night.
Two goals inside five second-half minutes by Utrecht’s Sebastien Haller leaves chances of making next summer’s finals in Poland extremely slim for Ricky Sbragia and his charges.
Hamilton produced several superb saves, including a breathtaking stop from Adrien Rabiot’s first-half header, but couldn’t keep the French at bay all night. A young Scottish team with a heavy Hearts and Hibs contingent sustained a defeat which leaves them trailing in qualifying Group Three. France now lead the section on 13 points, one ahead of second-placed Iceland and eight better off than Scotland – who nonetheless still have five qualifiers remaining and will not give up hope.
Tuesday’s qualifier against Northern Ireland in Paisley is now a game the young Scots must win, according to Sbragia who is preparing to make some alterations to his starting line-up. “We look to the game on Tuesday against Northern Ireland and we need to get a win, there’s no doubt about that. We have got to still believe we have a chance,” he said last night.
“To do that we definitely need to win and we may have to change the side about a bit. We gave the ball away cheaply at the first goal but France were a threat all night. When they scored their second the game went out of our hands.”
The French side included burgeoning talent like Paris Saint Germain midfielder Rabiot, Athletic Bilbao defender Aymeric Laporte and the country’s newest wonderkid, 18-year-old Rennes forward Ousmane Dembele. Against names like that, Scotland’s task was nothing if not daunting. Hamilton was defiant for more than an hour but eventually succumbed against relentless pressure.
France carried genuine pace up front and the Hearts goalkeeper was called into action on nine minutes to deny Haller in a one-against-one situation. He spread himself well to block the striker’s attempt on goal from Dembele’s through pass.
Playing on the break in a 4-4-1-1 formation, Scotland had to hold firm in defence. The Hearts pair Jordan McGhee and John Souttar played together centrally. They tried quick balls forward to utilise the mobility of Billy King, Sam Nicholson and Jason Cummings. Liam Henderson was the supporting midfielder in behind his Easter Road colleague, with Ryan Gauld lying deeper.
When the French midfield began to click into place, their precision passing caused Scotland all sorts of trouble. Hamilton held Laporte’s header from Maxwell Cornet’s corner on 28 minutes. King was then rescued by Souttar after being dispossessed inside his own penalty area by the imposing Haller. Hamilton again displayed fine reactions to parry Cornet’s shot after Souttar’s wayward ball out of defence.
The goalkeeper’s next save was the finest of the evening. From Dembele’s outswinging 36th-minute corner, Rabiot rose for a powerful header which flew towards the net until Hamilton’s left hand clawed it out at the goalpost. The French probed and probed at Scotland until the interval, monopolising the ball and sliding passes in behind at every opportunity.
From another incisive through ball on 43 minutes, Cornet managed to round the advancing Hamilton and he looked certain to open the scoring. He would have done so but McGhee’s anticipation saw him get back to hook the striker’s finish off the goal line.
Haller drove a first-time shot into the arms of the grateful Hamilton early in the second period, with France continuing to dominate. The Scotland keeper then pushed Dembele’s volley for a corner. Laporte, the home captain, had to be stretchered off on the hour after falling awkwardly. He and his fellow defenders weren’t being troubled much, though.
The Stade Jean Bouin was far from full last night but those in attendance certainly created a raucous atmosphere. Whenever France ventured forward, the decibel level rose considerably due to the many young and excitable home fans in the normally quiet Pays de la Loire region.
They had cause to make even more noise when their nation finally rippled the netting on 69 minutes. Cornet’s ball down the right to substitute full-back Jean-Philippe Gbamin was cleverly cut back to Haller. He took a touch and spun through 180 degrees before planting a low shot out of Hamilton’s reach from six yards.
Haller doubled the advantage five minutes later with an impish finish. Rabiot strode forward unchallenged and drove a left-footed attempt at goal from 25 yards. Hamilton couldn’t hold the ball and Haller arrived to clip the spillage in with the heel of his back foot. After such an impressive performance, it was tough on the Hearts keeper to concede the decisive second goal in such a way and he will feel he could have done better.
Rabiot had a header disallowed for offside in the last few minutes, and Haller lashed a shot against the post. By then, Scotland’s fate was clear. Tuesday’s qualifier against Northern Ireland is now make-or-break.
France U21 (4-2-3-1): Didillon; Conte (Gbamin 46), Kimpembe, Laporte (Lenglet 60), Pavard; Walter, Tolisso; Dembele, Rabiot, Cornet (Lemar 89); Haller. Unused subs: Nardi, Bakayoko, Nkoudou, Jean
Scotland U21 (4-4-1-1): Hamilton; Love, McGhee, Souttar, Kingsley; King, Slater, Gauld, Nicholson (McKay 70); Henderson (Christie 78); Cummings (McBurnie 83). Unused subs: Henly, Hendrie, Findlay, Polworth
Referee: Nikola Dabanovic (Montenegro)