Hibs star Paul Hanlon today insisted he’s not ready to settle for second best in his bid to lead Scotland’s Under-21 side to European glory.
Four points from a possible six against the red-hot favourites have, Hanlon claimed, filled Billy Stark’s squad full of confidence even although the Netherlands remain out in front, albeit by the narrowest of margins.
The Scots shocked the Dutch on home turf last November, Hanlon’s Easter Road team-mate David Wotherspoon grabbing the winner in a 2-1 win in Nijmegen to throw the race for a place in next year’s finals in Israel wide open.
Only three games remain for both countries, but Scotland skipper Hanlon claimed he and his team-mates can keep the pressure on the Dutch even if few expect them to drop any further points.
The top four best runners-up will join the group winners in moving on to the next stage of the competition, but Hanlon was adamant nothing less than top spot will do.
He said: “We are unbeaten after five matches, we’ve won away and drawn at home against the Dutch so we have to take massive confidence from that. Of course we are still aiming for top spot. There’s no reason why they can’t slip up in their remaining matches but we have to concentrate on ourselves.
“I think if people had said before these two games against the Netherlands that we’d take four points out of six off them, we’d have bitten their hand off.”
The fact Stark’s players negotiated 180 minutes against the Dutch undefeated illustrates there’s been nothing between the countries, the fact Scotland trail is down, not to last night’s result, but the home draws against Bulgaria and Austria which preceded it.
As such, the margin for error is slim to say the least but, argued Hanlon, the Scots can look ahead to the clash with Bulgaria in May with confidence. He said: “It will be tough, it will be starting to get very hot over there by then but we’ll look forward to that game, hope to win it and take it from there.”
Although Scotland didn’t find the net for the second time in the campaign, they remain top scorers in their qualifying section, another reason for optimism, even if it was clear long before the final whistle had sounded at St Mirren Park that the Dutch had decided the draw was a better result for them than it was for their opponents.
It was, though, a match which could have gone either way, the Dutch, as one would expect, enjoying long spells of possession, comfortably moving the ball around the pitch but rarely managing to cause the Scots too many problems.
Having said that, Hearts goalkeeper Mark Ridgers, having blundered on his debut to gift the Netherlands an equaliser which, thankfully, proved to count for nothing at the end of the day, was alert enough to block Nacer Barazite’s effort after the home defence had been carved open for possibly the first time.
Hanlon said: “The Dutch are always looked upon as one of the top nations in Europe. They keep you on the move, they are so fluid it’s sometimes hard to see what formation they are actually playing but over the two games we more than matched them.
“You know they will have a lot of possession but if you get frustrated and start to chase it then they will pick you off. We did well to keep our shape, we worked hard to shut the space and they didn’t have too many clear-cut chances.”
Scotland had opportunities of their own, Hanlon’s Easter Road team-mate David Wotherspoon electing to stay on his feet despite an arm across his chest from Dutch captain Bram Nuytinck early on. Hanlon said: “I didn’t get a clear view of it, but that’s David, he’s an honest, hard-working player who’d rather stay on his feet than go down.”
Visiting goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet blocked a second-half shot from Johnny Russell, one the Dundee United hitman later admitted he should probably have aimed for the near post rather than the opposite corner.
And, in a late, late flourish, a corner from substitute Scott Allan just eluded Liam Kelly, leaving the Scots happy but no doubt wondering just what might have been.
Scotland (4-2-3-1): Ridgers, Jack, Perry, Wilson, Hanlon; Kelly, Cairney (Allan 68); Russell, Wotherspoon, Mackay-Steven; Rhodes (O’Halloran 85). Subs not used: Archer, G Shinnie, Armstrong, Wylde, Pawlett.
Netherlands (4-3-3): Zoet; Leerdam (Indi 78), Gouweleeuw, Nuytinck, Vanaanholt; Maher, Fer, Bacuna, Vanginkel; Bacuna, Barazite (Zeefuik 83), Duarte (Cabral 64). Subs not used: Padt, Van Dyk, Kieftenbeld, Vanlaparra.
Referee: Clement Turpin (France).