Booed on to the field with eight minutes remaining, Chris Martin emerged as Scotland’s World Cup hero tonight at Hampden.
The Derby County forward, who is on loan at Fulham, came on as substitute to shrug off the jeers which greeted his arrival and score the winning goal on 88 minutes. In doing so, he preserved Gordon Strachan’s existence as national coach.
This match was characterised by a plethora of wasted chances which the Scots have so often been left to rue in the past. They hit the crossbar, a post, had one effort cleared off the goal line and another disallowed. That was all inside a first half in which Strachan’s side were comfortably the better side against a nation which began the match second in their qualifying group.
The second half was a more subdued affair until Martin intervened. The Tartan Army jeered him on as James Morrison made way, but six minutes later he was their idol. A swift touch and finish inside the penalty area hit the net by bouncing off a post. If there was an element of luck that it squeezed through, Scotland surely earned that with their endeavour throughout the evening.
Strachan has been under pressure for several months but this result will now buy him time with the Scottish Football Association hierarchy. The three points also moves Scotland up from fifth to fourth in their qualifying section.
Strachan named only two starters from Wednesday night’s 1-1 friendly draw with Canada – Charlie Mulgrew and Robert Snodgrass. It was a subdued atmosphere inside the national stadium with swathes of empty seats around Hampden prior to kick-off. Sadly, that is a genuine indictment of Scotland’s status at present amongst the country’s public. Little more than 20,000 took the trouble to attend what was a must-win affair for Scotland in Group F.
An attacking line-up began the game looking hungry and eager to keep their qualification hopes alive for Russia 2018. In the first minute, centre-back Russell Martin stung the palms of Jan Oblak in the Slovenia goal from Robert Snodgrass’ corner. Oblak then pushed away a deflected effort from Kieran Tierney, playing right-back instead of left-back. He was one of six Celtic players Strachan selected from the start.
Slovenia offered evidence of their counter-attacking prowess seconds later, and it required a perfectly executed saving tackle from Andy Robertson to halt the speedy Valter Birsa. Scotland found the net from their next corner but the Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers disallowed Russell Martin’s header for a shove on his marker, Miral Samardzic.
Strachan would have been encouraged watching his team monopolise possession during the opening 15 minutes. At times, the final ball forward was too high and aimless and left lone striker Griffiths with very little to feed off. Again Slovenia sprung forward on 17 minutes and Roman Bezjak’s clever run beat the offside trap, forcing goalkeeper Craig Gordon in an important save at his near post.
James Morrison’s 20-yard attempt clipped the side-netting as the pursuit of an opening goal continued. Then came two beautiful free-flowing attacks which ended with Griffiths thumping the goalframe twice.
First, Armstrong, Robertson and Snodgrass combined down the left and, from the West Ham player’s cross, Griffiths’ side-foot volley rebounded off the crossbar. Seconds later, Armstrong’s driving run down the right produced a low cross which the Celtic forward struck first-time on the run, only to this time see the ball strike the post. Morrison’s header was also cleared off the goalline during a period of concerted home pressure.
As always seems the case with Scotland, the chances continued to be spurned. By half-time the concern was the profligacy in front of goal could ultimately prove costly. There was also a worry over Griffiths, who took a knee in the back from Oblak in the dying moments of the first period. It was no surprise when he was forced off just after the restart.
Steven Naismith was the replacement, a clear statement of Strachan’s intent to keep his forward line mobile. The Slovenians were content to hold out at 0-0, knowing a point was no disaster to their qualifying campaign. Scotland, realistically, needed three. Everyone inside Hampden knew it.
They continued to probe at the visitors’ goal in the belief they could force a breakthrough, although there wasn’t the same intensity in their attacks as in the first half. Several crosses were delivered by the likes of Snodgrass and Robertson but they were mostly too deep or punched clear by the impressive Oblak. The longer the clock ticked on, the more this matched threatened to disintegrate with Scotland’s midfield looking increasingly jaded.
Ikechi Anya was introduced in place of Snodgrass with the aim of injecting some zest. He found an immediate scoring opportunity. James Forrest chased a ball into the penalty area and was challenged be the uncompromising Bostjan Cesar. The loose ball fell to Anya, whose first-time right-footed strike nested in the arms of Oblak.
The final nine minutes saw Martin climb off the substitutes’ bench to take over from Morrison. It was the last throw of an ever-slowing dice from Strachan, and proved to be the most decisive. On 88 minutes, an intelligent short pass from Armstrong found Martin just inside the Slovenian penalty area. The striker took a touch and hit a left-footed shot what squeezed past Oblak’s leg in into the net via the far post.
Those who had taken the bother to journey to Mount Florida late on Mothering Sunday were now thoroughly justified. As Martin took the acclaim next to the corner flag, the notion arrived that the much-maligned forward may just have kept Strachan in employment at the SFA for the time being.
Scotland (4-2-3-1): Gordon; Tierney, R Martin, Mulgrew, Robertson; Brown, Morrison (C Martin 82); Forrest, Armstrong, Snodgrass (Anya 75); Griffiths (Naismith 49).
Unused subs: Hamilton, McGregor, Berra, McGinn, Ritchie, D Fletcher, Bannan, Cairney, Rhodes.
Slovenia (4-3-3): Oblak; Aljaz Struna, Samardzic, Cesar, Jokic; Kurtic, Krhin, Kampl (Omladic 87); Birsa (Beric 69), Ilicic, Bezjak (Verbic 58).
Unused subs: Koprivec, Belec, Sirok, Krajnc, Novakovic, Andraz Struna, Mevlja, Zajc, Crnic.
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Ned).
Scotland - C Martin (88)