Scotland’s mini-resurgence under Gordon Strachan continued last night as they more than held their own against the United States, ranked 13th in the world.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s side will be in Brazil for next summer’s World Cup, while Scotland will be left looking on from the outside, but at Hampden Park there was no evidence of any gulf between the teams. Certainly, there was never any chance of a repeat of the 5-1 defeat Craig Levein’s Scots were subjected to at the hands of the Americans in the Jacksonville heat almost 18 months ago, with Klinsmann adamant afterwards that the Scots are heading in the right direction.
Strachan’s side, without ever really hitting the heights, could arguably lay claim to have been marginally the better team in a competitive but fairly low-key friendly watched by just more than 20,000. In a game of few clear chances, the Scots had looked the likelier side to find a breakthrough, certainly until a raft of second-half substitutions took the sting out of proceedings, albeit a late rally almost brought the visitors victory.
Nonetheless, the friendly match, in which Strachan indulged in a touch of experimentation, represented another tentative step on what it is hoped will prove to be a road to Scottish recovery after the best part of two decades without an appearance at a major finals.
Last night’s stalemate represented a third game in a row unbeaten and, at the risk of clutching at straws, was Scotland’s sixth successive encouraging display since that win in Croatia in June that first sparked this welcome upturn. Of further reason for optimism for Strachan is the fact his side have now kept back-to-back clean sheets against nations ranked significantly higher. This shouldn’t be scoffed at given that the defence has been viewed as a particular weakness in the Scotland team over the past few years.
Strachan broke up his burgeoning centre-back pairing of Russell Martin and Grant Hanley, with Brighton’s Gordon Greer given a debut as Martin dropped to the bench. The manager’s other notable selection saw Craig Conway, also of Brighton, handed his first international start on the left wing, while Steven Fletcher, whose international career has yet to ignite, was back in the side for the first time in eight months after an injury lay-off.
After Glaswegian X-Factor contestant Nicholas McDonald had roused the Tartan Army with an impressive rendition of Flower of Scotland, the hosts, wearing their new all-dark blue kit for the first time, created the first opening of the match after two minutes. It fell the way of Fletcher after Snodgrass had laid the ball into his path 25 yards out, but the Sunderland forward blazed his half-volley harmlessly over the bar.
Conway then had a similar opportunity in seven minutes after Omar Gonzalez had headed a Barry Bannan delivery into his path on the edge of the box, but, as with Fletcher’s chance, the Scot was unable to keep his half-volley down enough to trouble Tim Howard in the United States goal.
Wild snatches at half-volleys were proving a theme of the early exchanges, with DaMarcus Beasley, the former Rangers player, pinging America’s first half-chance of the match high over from wide on the left.
The Scots were playing some nice stuff in patches, and, after an impressive patient build-up, Fletcher ended up heading a Snodgrass cross just over in the tenth minutes. The Americans went on to enjoy a brief period of pressure, with Jozy Altidore, Fletcher’s fellow Sunderland striker, rasping a half-volley just over after a Michael Bradley free-kick found its way to him on the edge of the box.
Debutant Greer than had to make a timely intervention to cut out a cross with Eddie Johnson waiting to pounce in the 16th minute.
A corner from Bradley, the AS Roma player, found its way through to Gonzalez at the back post, but the LA Galaxy centre-back totally miscued his shot and the danger was cleared.
Scotland managed to get themselves on the front foot again, with Fletcher drawing a foul from Gonzalez just a yard outside the penalty area, but Charlie Mulgrew curled a powerful shot narrowly over the top. The hosts had to survive a scare just after the half hour when Neil Hutton booted the ball behind from inside his own six-yard box after Brad Evans had flicked on another Bradley corner.
Most of Scotland’s attacking joy was coming from the partnership of Snodgrass and Fletcher, with the Norwich man playing just in behind the Sunderland attacker, and the bearded duo combined to create another opening in 34 minutes. Fletcher laid off to Snodgrass on the edge of the box, but the former Livingston player fired high over the bar.
Scotland should have taken the lead nine minutes before the break, and it was the usual suspects at the heart of it. Snodgrass slipped the ball through to Fletcher in a central position, and instead of shooting from the edge of the box, the former Hibs player rolled the ball into the path of the onrushing Conway, only for the Brighton winger to curl a low effort wastefully past the near post from less than 15 yards out.
Scotland started the second half strongly and three minutes after the restart, Conway won a free-kick wide on the left after being released by a superb pass from Fletcher. Bannan took the free-kick and instead of crossing, the little midfielder cut the ball low across the penalty area for Mulgrew, who had lost his marker, but the Celtic man chipped his effort into the arms of Howard from just inside the box.
Strachan’s side almost made the breakthrough from another free-kick five minutes later. Steven Whittaker was tripped in a central position 15 yards out, and Snodgrass saw his goalbound left-foot effort brilliantly punched away by Howard, diving full-stretch to his top left-hand corner.
A minute later, the Scots had a penalty claim waved away when Conway’s cross struck the arm of Gonzalez, albeit the American defender knew little about it.
The 100 or so American fans housed in Hampden’s main stand thought their team had taken the lead in the 58th minute, but Johnson’s powerful 20-yard blast whistled agonisingly past David Marshall’s right-hand post and smacked back of the advertising boards.
The visitors made a triple substitution just after the hour, and Scotland made their first changes of the match in 68 minutes when Lee Wallace and Ross McCormack came on for Whittaker and Snodgrass.
Just moments after Bannan, who had been typically impressive in possession of the ball, went off to be replaced by Steven Naismith, the United States almost made an 82nd minute breakthrough. Greer failed to clear his lines, allowing substitute Aron Johansson to fire in a low angled shot which was brilliantly parried by Marshall. Altidore looked all set to knock the rebound into an open goal, but Grant Hanley got back to somehow bundle the ball to safety.
Gary Mackay-Steven, the young Dundee United winger, came on for his debut, but it was the Americans who went closest to nicking a winner. Again it was Johansson who threatened, with the AZ Alkmaar striker rasping a stinging effort just beyond the far post after being teed up 15 yards out by a cut-back from fellow substitute Brek Shea.
The Scots deservedly held on for a draw and will fly out to Norway for Tuesday’s friendly confident of maintaining the sense of optimism which has been gradually building among over the past six months or so.