Scotland 2, Poland 2: Dream over for Strachan’s men

Robert Lewandowski (fourth from left) celebrates with his team-mates after grabbing a late equaliser
Robert Lewandowski (fourth from left) celebrates with his team-mates after grabbing a late equaliser
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The Scottish lion roared but it all ended in tears as all hope of a place in next summer’s European Championship finals disappeared in one of the most dramatic nights Hampden has seen in a long, long time.

Gordon Strachan and his players had gone into this match knowing they had to avoid defeat to retain their dream of making it to a first major tournament since France 1998 but their hearts were broken both in Glasgow and in Dublin.

Steven Fletcher celebrates putting Scotland ahead. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Steven Fletcher celebrates putting Scotland ahead. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Having suffered a body blow when goal machine Robert Lewandowski opened the scoring within three minutes, the Scots silenced the Poles and their vociferous support with stunning strikes either side of half-time from Matt Ritchie and Steven Fletcher.

But seconds from the end Lewandowski broke the Tartan Army’s hearts, the first to react after Kamil Grosicki’s deflected free-kick came back off the post.

And that, combined with Shane Long’s surprise winner for the Republic of Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, was enough to extinguish the extreme optimism with which Scotland had been forced to enter the penultimate game of their campaign.

It was cruel, oh so cruel.

Strachan had thought long and hard on who would be his lone striker but resisted popular opinion in sticking with Steven Fletcher ahead of the choice of many, Leigh Griffiths, while the goals scored at the weekend by Chris Martin and Jordan Rhodes held no sway with the Scotland boss.

There were, of course, no such deliberations for his Polish counterpart Adam Nawalka who had, in his estimation, the world’s best striker at his disposal, Group D’s leading scorer, Lewandowski, ten of the Bayern Munich hitman’s 29 goals for his country having come in this qualifying campaign prior to last night.

Strachan did spring a couple of surprises, opting for the greater experience of Darren Fletcher, making what has become a rare appearance in a dark blue jersey ahead of James McArthur while talisman Shaun Maloney, the Scots top scorer, was somewhat surprisingly ousted by newcomer Ritchie.

Amid the war of words which had erupted over the perceived rough-house tactics of Scotland in Warsaw a year ago - a charge furiously denied by Strachan who produced the statistics to suggest otherwise - and all the various permutations that had exercised minds on both sides, Poland are not yet certain of second place and automatic promotion.

But as far as Strachan and his players were concerned, there was only one outcome they had to avoid, well aware defeat in this, their penultimate qualifying match, would put even a play-off place out of reach and so render Sunday’s final game against minnows Gibraltar in Faro totally meaningless. They managed to avoid being beaten but not, sadly, being bundled out of the competition.

Thousands of Polish fans, from near and far, and well in excess of their official allocation, had descended on Hampden, a huge phalanx in the Mount Florida end of the national stadium greeting the teams with a series of flares which bathed them in a bright red light.

Another smaller but still sizeable contingent of visiting supporters faced them while elsewhere around the ground were dotted the red and white of the visitors’ national flag.

If the welcome they’d given Lewandowski and co was raucous, it was nothing to the eruption with just 140 seconds on the clock as Arkadiusz Milik threaded the ball through for his captain to slide the ball between Scotland goalkeeper David Marshall and his near post.

There was a question of offside about Lewandowski’s run and it was certainly a marginal decision but assistant referee Vencel Toth kept his flag down and immediately Scotland were up against it.

And they were left chasing shadows for long spells as confidence flooded through the Poles, Lewandowski the obvious threat but ably assisted by Milik, Jakub Blaszcyzykowski and Kamil Grosicki as they sought to stretch the Scots’ defence time and again.

It was obvious from the opening half-hour that opportunities for Strachan’s side, who, apart from their six-goal demolition of Gibraltar, had scored just eight other goals up to this stage, were going to be at a premium.

But Scott Brown’s superb crossfield ball, sailing over the head of Lukasz Piszczek to find James Forrest who presented Steven Naismith with a half-chance, was proof Scotland had not given up. His shot, however, travelled no more than a handful of yards before it was blocked.

The threat posed by the Poles was again all too evident as Maciej Rybus and Lewandowski carved out a clear opening for Blaszczykowski who’s low shot beat Marshall but zipped inches wide of the far post.

Hanley’s blushes when he mis-kicked as Ritchie’s free-kick deflected into his path only eight yards out were spared by an offside flag. It did, though, spark a bit of activity inside the Polish half which eventually ended with a goal from nothing, Ritchie taking Forrest’s ball and spinning to fire a fantastic left-foot shot beyond goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski and into the top corner of the net – the final action of the first half.

Suddenly, the Tartan Army had something to shout about, their rivals silenced on the stroke of half-time, a totally different complexion put on the game and fading hope rapidly restored.

Marshall got down well to push away Milik’s shot just 40 seconds into the second half only for Scotland to hit back, Naismith somehow failing to turn the ball into the net as he slid in at the back post on Steven Whittaker’s cross.

The game was certainly more of a contest with the Poles robbed of their early dominance as Brown began to make his presence felt in the middle of the park and it was turned completely on its head with another stunning strike from Scotland.

Alan Hutton broke up play as the Poles took a quick free-kick, the ball finding its way to Ritchie who fed Steven Fletcher on his right, the former Hibs striker wasting not time in floating a superb effort over Fabianski, fully justifying Strachan’s decision to give him the nod.

And Fletcher could have made it three, rising to meet Hutton’s cross only to direct his header straight into the arms of the Swansea City goalkeeper.

Poland were becoming increasingly desperate, their own qualification hopes which had looked so assured 85 minutes earlier at risk, Grosicki heading wildly over when found in space by Laukasz Piszczek’s pinpoint cross.

But the game was to take one last dramatic twist with only seconds of the four added minutes remaining, Lewandowski the first to react after Grosicki’s deflected free-kick had come back off Marshall’s post.

Scotland: Marshall, Hutton, R Martin, Hanley, Whittaker, D Fletcher, Brown. Ritchie, Naismith (Maloney 68), Forrest (Dorrans 84), S Fletcher.

Substitutes not used: Gordon, McGregor, Robertson, Greer, Berra, Russell, Griffiths, C Martin, Rhodes.

Poland: Fabianski, Piszczek, Pazdan, Glik, Rybus (Wawrzyniak 71), Krychowiak, Maczynski, Grosicki, Blaszczykowski (Olkowski 83), Milik (Jodlowiec 62), Lewandowski.

Substitutes not used: Szczesny, Boruc, Cionek, Jedrzejczyk. Szukala, Linetty, Mila, Sobiech, Borysiuk.

Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary).