Scotland left chasing a play-off place

Ilkay Gundogan of Germany celebrates scoring the winning goal. Picture: AP
Ilkay Gundogan of Germany celebrates scoring the winning goal. Picture: AP
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That beacon of hope which shone so brightly only a few days ago is little more than a speck in the distance.

It may, of course, be re-ignited, but that remains a faint hope, even the precarious route to France next summer via a play-off spot all but beyond Scotland.

Why, oh why, though Scotland boss Gordon Strachan must have been thinking. Why didn’t his players produce this battling, never-say-die performance a few days ago in Georgia, that insipid display in Tbilisi undermining much of the good work of a campaign which had, at last, gripped and thrilled the nation, delivering a belief that, at long last, we were about to join the big boys again.

Twice behind, Strachan’s players refused to chuck in the towel, Thomas Muller’s deflected opener cancelled out by a Mats Hummels own goal after the seemingly invincible Manuel Neuer was caught out by Shaun Maloney’s free-kick.

And again, after Muller had nodded Germany in front once more with his fourth goal in two games against the Scots, they battled back, James McArthur’s volley flying past Neuer only for Ilkay Gundogan to settle it once and for all.

But with the Republic of Ireland beating Georgia in Dublin and Poland demolishing Gibraltar, it’s looking all but over once more.

The travel troubles which afflicted Scotland’s trip to Georgia, a delayed flight meaning Strachan’s players not emerging from Glasgow Airport until six o’clock the following morning, struck again as the squad’s arrival at Hampden was delayed by an accident on the motorway meaning their coach didn’t arrive at the national stadium until barely an hour before kick-off.

Within minutes the changes Strachan had promised were unveiled, Gordon Greer coming in at the back with Charlie Mulgrew switching to left back at the expense of Andy Robertson.

Further forward McArthur and James Forrest were given the nod ahead of Steven Naismith and Ikechi Anya while Germany’s coach Joachim Low contented himself with just two changes, Gundogan and Mario Gotze replacing Karim Bellarabi and Lukas Podolski from the side which had defeated Poland 3-1 to take over at the top of qualifying Group D.

Strachan had called on his players to be resolute in defence and they certainly had to be, Germany’s full backs Emre Can and Jonas Hector more like auxiliary wingers, hugging their respective touchlines as Bastian Schweinsteiger took up station in front of his centre backs to dictate play from deep, leaving the likes of Mesut Ozil, Gundogan and Muller to probe for any weaknesses at the back.

In response the Scots adopted a pressing game, chasing and harrying for all they were worth, the only worry possibly for Strachan being that following their tiring journey back from Tbilisi the expenditure of such energy may ultimately prove decisive in the latter stages of the match.

For a while it paid off, Germany enjoying plenty of the ball as the likes of Mesut Ozil, Gundogan and Muller probed for an opening for lone striker Gotze but just as the Scots were probably beginning to think they had seen off that early threat the world champions struck.

Muller, who had scored both Germany’s goals in Dortmund exactly a year previously, firing in a low shot which took a wicked deflection off Russell Martin.

Scotland might have been rattled but if so they didn’t show it, shrugging off that 18th minute setback to enjoy their own huge slice of luck as they equalised ten minutes later. Can’s foul on Mulgrew looked inside the penalty area but Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers ruled it inches outside. Not that it mattered, Shaun Maloney whipping in a dipping free-kick which appeared to catch Neuer by surprise, the goalkeeper only just managing to push the ball out – but only onto team-mate Hummels who found himself credited with an own goal.

Sadly, however, the taunts of the Tartan Army to the sizeable visiting support that “your not singing any more,” were choked in their throats as Muller took advantage of a mistake by David Marshall, the goalkeeper only able to palm a Can shot in the direction of Muller who headed the ball back beyond him to restore the German lead.

Again, though, the Scots refused to buckle and came back to stun Germany for a second time two minutes from the interval, Maloney’s corner cleared only as far as McArthur who delivered a first-time volley from 22 yards out which flew past a startled Neuer.

There was, however, a hint of offside about the incident. James Morrison standing in front of the German goalkeeper and ducking as the ball hurtled towards him.

Nevertheless, it left Hampden a much happier place during the interval and Strachan probably scratching his head as to how his side could produce such a never-say-die display in stark contrast to their timid offering on Friday night.

Gotze had the ball in the net for a second time but was again ruled quite clearly offside as Germany attempted to shrug off the shock of being pegged back not once but twice, doing so as goalscorer Muller turned provider, his pull-back allowing Gundogan to net via the post.

Another test of the mental resolve of Strachan’s men although it nearly became a step too far when Gotze laid the ball off for Muller to fire in a powerful shot which Marshall just managed to beat away.

Nevertheless, the Scots retained the belief they could, incredibly, equalise for a third time and they almost did so as Alan Hutton drove into the German penalty area only to see his rising effort crack into the side-netting.

The introduction of Anya had injected some pace to the Scotland attack, Jerome Boateng just winning a race for a through ball as Scotland sensed there might, just, be another goal in it for them. With the minutes ticking down and the news the Irish were beating Georgia, Strachan was forced to go for broke, replacing both captain Scott Brown and Forrest with Derby striker Chris Martin and Bournemouth wideman Matt Ritchie.

But it was to no avail, Scotland’s hopes of ending that 18-year wait for another crack at the finals of major tournament left hanging by the thinnest of threads, four points off a play-off place with only two games remaining.

Scotland: (4-2-3-1): Marshall; Hutton, R Martin, Hanley, Mulgrew; Brown (C Martin 80), McArthur; Forrest (Ritchie 80), Morrison, Maloney (Anya 59); S Fletcher.

Substitutes not used: Gordon, McGregor, Griffiths, Whittaker, Naismith, Russell, D Fletcher, Greer, Forsyth.

Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Can,Boateng, Hummels, Hector; Kroos, Schweinsteiger; Gundogan, Ozil (Kramer 90+2), Muller; Gotze (Schurrle 85).

Substitutes not used: Zieler, Ter Stegen, Mustaff, Rudy, Ginter, Podolski, Volland, Bellarabi, Kruse.

Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Netherlands).

Attendance: 50,753.