SIX minutes from full-time in Paisley last night, Billy Stark earned the reward for two key substitutions as Scotland maintained hope of reaching the 2015 European Under-21 Championship.
Having dispatched both Kenny McLean and Hearts’ Callum Paterson from the bench with Georgia 1-0 ahead, the Scotland coach looked on in awe as the pair combined for Paterson’s stunning overhead equaliser. He wasn’t alone in being mesmerised.
The Hearts forward took to the air to acrobatically drive McLean’s free-kick beyond the Georgian goalkeeper Giorgi Nadiradze. The set-piece travelled over his left shoulder for a right-footed finish which flew into the net, securing a vital point for Scotland as they pursue a play-off place in Group 3.
Georgia had led since Giorgi Chanturia’s classy 35th-minute opening goal but perseverance paid dividends in the end for Scotland.
“We kept at it in the second half,” said Stark. “Kenny did well when he came on in terms of switching the play. Callum gave us legs and an aerial threat in the penalty box which proved crucial. The important thing was keeping our unbeaten home record in the qualifiers but you had to take your hat off to Georgia for their quality of play.”
Scotland remain three points behind Group 3’s joint leaders, Holland and Slovakia, who drew 2-2 last night. With three fixtures left in the section, Stark knows there is a real chance of progressing towards a first European Under-21 Championship since 1996.
“When you start out you want to qualify, of course you do,” he said. “I think 16 points is still achievable for us and that means you have a chance of qualifying. We still have to play Holland at home. You’ve seen the quality of Slovakia and Georgia and teams are cutting each other up a wee bit.”
Stark gave an honest assessment of Scotland’s performance at the end of a game in which Georgia looked comfortable for long spells. “I’m a wee bit disappointed. I felt we started reasonably well then retreated a bit and allowed them to dictate a little. We worked the ball into promising positions and, if I’m honest, a wee bit lack of quality let us down when it looked as if we could penetrate. I can’t say it’s a game we definitely should have won.”
Scotland seized the early midfield initiative with the Dundee United pair Ryan Gauld and Stuart Armstrong orchestrating play and sliding passes through towards striker Stevie May. Georgia’s threat lay in their swift counter-attacking ability, which first manifested itself after 32 minutes as they started asserting themselves. Jambuli Jigauri exchanged passes with his fellow midfielder Valeri Qazaishvili and was tackled by Andrew Robertson just inside the Scotland penalty area. The Swiss referee waved play on but that merely delayed the young Scots’ fate.
Moments later, the Georgians scampered forward again as Jano Ananidze drove towards goal before hitting Chanturia with a reverse pass. He pivoted away from Ryan Jack to angle a left-footed finish into the net via the far post.
Qazaishvili shot into Jordan Archer’s hands early in the second half, but by then the Georgians had retreated slightly and seemed intent on protecting their slender lead. They did so with some brutal tackling which left even the most aggressive players in the home side looking more like George from Rainbow. On 57 minutes, the Celtic midfielder Dylan McGeouch limped off injured after one of many crunching tackles and was replaced by McLean.
Gauld dispatched a shot from distance before Paterson replaced Callum McGregor. It wasn’t long until the Hearts player felt the force of the Georgians himself, centre-back Kobakhidze launching into an unpunished two-footed tackle on the Tynecastle teenager out on the right flank.
Scotland looked as if a goal was beyond them ... until Paterson’s stunning intervention.
Scotland U21 (4-2-3-1): Archer; Jack, McGhee, Findlay, Robertson; Armstrong MacLeod; McGregor (Paterson 69), Gauld, McGeouch (McLean 57); May. Subs: Kettings, McHattie, Bannigan, Kerr, Handling. Georgia U21 (4-2-3-1): Nadiradze; Kvekveskiri, Kobakhidze, Kvirkvelia, Ubilava; Papava, Parunashvili; Jigauri, Qazaishvili (Kirkitadze 67), Ananidze; Chanturia (Kvilitaia 84). Subs: Meshveliani, Grigalashvili, Kvilitaia, Chapidze, Pantsulaia, Skhirtladze.
Referee: Alain Bieri (Switzerland).