Scotland’s World Cup dream remains alive after a sensational end to their match against Slovakia saw Gordon Strachan’s side take the points they needed to stay on track for a play-off place.
It had looked like another night of heartbreak for the Tartan Army as the game headed for a goalless draw which would see Slovakia almost certainly finish second in qualifying Group F despite the visitors having been forced to play with ten men for three quarters of the game after Robert Mak had been sent off.
But, in a dramatic finish, substitutes Ikechi Anya and Chris Martin combined to finally beat Slovakian goalkeeper Martin Dubravka, who had pulled off five terrific saves and had twice been saved by his crossbar.
A year ago, Scotland’s hopes of being in Russia next summer looked at an end when they were beaten 3-0 in Slovakia but it was only fitting that Martin, who kick-started their campaign with a last-gasp winner against Slovenia which sparked a run of ten points from four games, who again claimed the glory.
There may have been a question of the ball coming off Slovakian skipper Martin Skrtel as he slid in at his own front post in a desperate bid to thwart Martin but, whoever it was, it squeezed past Dubravka.
And it was Martin who took the congratulations of his team-mates, leaving them just one step away from keeping their World Cup interest going when they travel to Slovenia this weekend.
Win or bust, that’s what it had come down to. Nothing less than a victory would do. But it was a situation any member of the Tartan Army would gladly have accepted 51 weeks ago as they trudged away from the Antona Malatinského Stadium in Trnava.
It was a result which, following on from a last-gasp equaliser at home to Lithuania a few days earlier, appeared to signal the end of Scotland’s bid to make the finals of a major tournament for the first time in 20 years.
But a remarkable transformation which brought ten points from 12 at least provided hope, leaving Strachan and his players in a three-way battle with Slovakia and Slovenia, who they play in Ljubljana on Sunday evening, for that play-off place behind leaders England which would give them a second bite at the cherry.
However, the convoluted rules governing second-placed nations had put Slovakia in pole position meaning that to avoid making the trip to Slovenia meaningless, Scotland simply had to win.
They did so, though handicapped by the loss of skipper Scott Brown and his Celtic team-mate Stuart Armstrong, leading to a 79th cap for 33-year-old Darren Fletcher, who took over the captain’s armband in his first competitive appearance for his country in 11 months.
The conundrum for Scotland was to balance taking the game to their opponents while ensuring they didn’t fall victim to a sucker punch. But, in the early stages at least, they appeared uninhibited by that thought, as they made such a start which clearly rattled left Slovakia.
Leigh Griffiths was only inches away from a glorious through-ball from Andy Robertson before loud claims for a penalty as Kieran Tierney was barged over by Mak were waved away.
There was a further shout for a spot-kick as James Forrest’s cross appeared to catch the left arm of Tomas Hubocan before Hearts skipper Christophe Berra rose high above everyone to meet Griffiths’ cross, powering in a downward header which goalkeeper Dubravka clawed to safety.
The Slovaks obviously didn’t fancy the energetic approach of the Scots, looking strangely nervous for such an experienced side as they struggled to find any rhythm and a foothold in the game. And their cause wasn’t helped when they were reduced to ten men after just 22 minutes. Mak, the scorer of two of their goals a year ago, took a blatant dive with Scotland goalkeeper Craig Gordon nowhere near him, earning himself a second yellow having been booked earlier for a heavy challenge on Forrest.
The striker argued his case long and hard but there was no defence, Serbian referee Milorad Mazic absolutely right to send him packing.
With the Scots rampant, Mak had certainly done his team-mates no favours and again they had Dubravka to thank for keeping them on level terms, the goalkeeper throwing himself to his right to push away Griffiths’ curling effort.
Although a man down, Slovakia were well aware that as long as the game remained goalless they’d take second place with a win over minnows Malta on Sunday and, having overcome the shock of losing Mak with three quarters of the game remaining, they began to look more settled without posing any great threat to Gordon, the former Hearts man earning his 50th cap.
The home fans also knew the situation and, as the minutes ticked by, they began to get a little edgy as time started to play into Slovakia’s hands.
Stanislav Lobotka had looked the pick of the Slovakian side, one first-half run halted by the presence of Gordon and it was he who again attempted to test the Scotland goalkeeper but his shot from range was never going to cause any trouble.
Given Scotland were up against ten men, the calls were for Strachan to put on another striker which he did so on the hour mark, Martin introduced as Forrest was sacrificed only seconds after Jan Gregus had again reminded the home side of the precariousness of their position with a shot which was blocked by Gordon.
But, at the other end, Dubravka was once more defiant, spectacularly turning away a vicious effort from Griffiths although the Scots were badly in need of an injection of pace to further test their short-handed visitors.
That sense of urgency began to surface as Strachan’s men began to pin the Slovaks back again and Dubravka was beaten by Martin’s superb long-range effort only for the ball to crash back off the crossbar.
And Griffiths was similarly denied minutes later when Martin Skrtel’s foul on Martin presented him with a free-kick in exactly the same spot from which he had dispatched those two against England, Dubravka nowhere near the ball as it hammered off the woodwork.
Scotland were undoubtedly turning the screw, James Morrison looking certain to score as Martin’s deft flick opened the wall of white shirts which had been battling to keep their rivals at bay. But again Dubravka proved his worth, somehow pushing his shot over, his fourth notable save of the game which quickly became five as he knocked Andy Robertson’s near-post effort aside.
And that appeared to be that until that heart-stopping finale, the winner coming with only two minutes on the clock.
Scotland: Gordon; Tierney (Anya 82), Berra, Mulgrew, Robertson; D Fletcher (McArthur 79), Morrison, Bannan; Forrest (C Martin 60), Griffiths, Phillips.
Slovakia: Dubravka; Pekarik, Skrtel, Durica, Hubocan; Gregus, Lobotka; Kucka (Gydnber,80) Hamsik (Duda 79), Mak; Nemec (Weiss 79).
Referee: Milorad Mazic.