The sense of missed opportunity continues to weigh heavily on a nation today as Scotland fly out to Slovakia with thoughts of injecting fresh life into their unlikely bid to make it to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Had Saturday night’s game at home to Lithuania gone to form, Gordon Strachan’s team would have found a way to get the better of Edgaras Jankauskas’ well-organised but unspectacular side and would be sitting pretty at the top of Group F on maximum points. Instead, they missed a huge chance to steal a notable march on their two perceived main rivals for second place in the section, Slovenia and Slovakia.
The Scots, of course, still sit second in the table, but, having taken only four points from matches against the two lowest-ranked sides, they are already scrapping to keep alive qualification hopes that looked slender from the moment they were pitted with England and two higher-ranked Eastern European teams who, unlike Scotland, have both made it to major tournaments within the last decade.
For Strachan’s team to have a realistic chance of staying in the hunt for Russia, it was widely felt that they would have to take four points from this October double-header against Lithuania and Slovakia. If they are to accomplish this feat, they must now do it the hard way and win in Trnava tomorrow after being stifled by the Lithuanians in the more winnable of the two matches on an exasperating evening on Glasgow’s south side.
The most obvious straw to clutch at following Saturday’s underwhelming display and result is that Slovenia have also been held to a draw by Lithuania, while, Slovakia, the second seeds, have lost both their games so far. The danger in taking solace from this state of affairs, however, is that Scotland, Slovenia, Slovakia and Lithuania continue cutting each other’s throats and whoever finishes second to likely group winners England is not among the eight best runners-up who will advance to a play-off.
After just two matches of a ten-game campaign, there is little value in second-guessing how things will pan out. That said, it is not unreasonable to surmise that if Scotland are serious about finishing in the top two in a year’s time, they must win tomorrow, effectively eliminate Slovakia from the reckoning, and ensure a sense of buoyancy is restored ahead of next month’s trip to Wembley to face England.
Although the situation looks forlorn to most outsiders, Scotland’s players, understandably, are trying to put a positive slant on their predicament ahead of their pivotal match in Slovakia. “They are at home and they have no points, so it’s a bigger game for them,” said Andy Robertson, the left-back. “Their fans will be on them, they’ll be frustrated so there will be pressure on them.
“I don’t think anyone would be out of the running after three games, it’s still very early and there are loads of games to go. But for them to have zero points from nine would make it very tough for them.
“They could come back from that – but it’s our aim to put them in that position. If we can get a win over there then we’d be sitting okay after three matches.”
Robertson’s assertion is spot on. However, Scotland’s increasingly-weary supporters are entitled to enquire how Strachan’s team can be expected to win away to Slovakia – a team who reached the last 16 at Euro 2016 just a few months ago – if they can’t win at home to a Lithuania side who have never made it to a major finals and are ranked 117th in the world.
Jankauskas’ side were well worth their point at Hampden. Scotland had the lion’s share of the possession and the better of the chances, but claims that they were dreadfully unlucky on the night have been vastly exaggerated by Strachan and his players.
On a night when much was expected of them, Scotland simply failed to ignite. The team selected was largely along the lines most of the Tartan Army would have picked, with the notable exception of the centre-forward position where Chris Martin, who has toiled to win over supporters, was once again a contentious pick ahead of Leigh Griffiths and Steven Fletcher.
With the exciting trio of Olly Burke, Robert Snodgrass and Matt Ritchie operating behind the misfiring Fulham striker, however, Scotland should still have had enough guile to make life difficult for the Lithuanians. It spoke volumes about the way the night panned out that the most lively attacker on show was Lithuania’s former Hearts player, Arvydas Novikovas. The 25-year-old was never short of technique during his time at Tynecastle and he made life difficult for former Hearts colleague Callum Paterson on a couple of occasions while also leaving Burke for dead with a sublime piece of skill wide on the left. Novikovas, currently playing in the German second tier with Bochum, added further insult to injury by admitting afterwards that he had no idea who Burke was, even though the Scots teenager recently earned a lucrative move to Bundesliga side RB Leipzig.
The first half was particularly disappointing from the hosts. After a reasonably promising start in which defenders Grant Hanley and Paterson headed off target from Matt Ritchie free-kick deliveries in the opening 13 minutes, their only other chance of note came in the 25th minute when Martin volleyed agonisingly beyond the far post after stretching out his left leg to meet a cross from Snodgrass.
The jeers from the Tartan Army were audible if not particularly vociferous at half-time. The Scots, with James McArthur on for injured captain Darren Fletcher, responded with a positive opening to the second half.
Although Novikovas saw a low angled shot from ten yards beaten away by David Marshall, the hosts looked like they had raised the tempo. This brought openings for Snodgrass and Martin, and the Tartan Army began to sense a goal. Unfortunately for the hosts, it would go to the visitors in the 59th minute when captain Fiodor Cernych laid the ball off to Vykintas Slivka outside the box, and after spinning away from Hanley, took the return pass and had all the time in the world to rifle past the exposed Marshall.
With angst now in the Scottish air, substitute James Forrest should have produced a swift response but he rasped his shot wide from 12 yards out after a Robertson cross was knocked into his path. Griffiths was eventually introduced with 20 minutes left when he replaced Ritchie and the Celtic striker was disappointed to head straight at the Lithuania keeper from a Snodgrass header with 12 minutes remaining. Scotland eventually found a way through in the 89th minute when Paterson’s long throw was flicked on by Hanley and McArthur nodded in from close range.
Hampden roared, and in stoppage-time Barry Bannan’s corner almost forced an own goal that would have put a far glossier complexion on Scotland’s World Cup hopes. Instead they touch down in Slovakia aiming to banish the boos and lift the mood of a nation demoralised by the increased prospect of a tenth consecutive major tournament passing without Scottish involvement.
Scotland (4-2-3-1): Marshall; Paterson, R Martin, Hanley, Robertson; Bannan, D Fletcher (McArthur 46); Burke (Forrest 56), Snodgrass, Ritchie (Griffiths 70); C Martin.
Lithuania (4-2-3-1): Setkus; Vaitkunas, Freidgeimas, Girdvainis, Slavickas (Andriuskevicius 63); Zulpa (Chvedukas 65), Kuklys; Cernych, Slivka, Novikovas; Valskis (Grigaravicius 85).
Ref: Tobias Stieler (Germany).