Scotland’s lingering hopes of qualifying for the Under-21 European Championships in Poland next summer were effectively extinguished by last night’s controversial defeat by Macedonia at Tynecastle.
Ricky Sbragia’s side needed to win to haul themselves back into contention, but although they enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, they were undone by a first-half goal from Kire Markoski. After the visitors were reduced to ten men midway through the second half, Scotland were the victims of two contentious stoppage-time decisions which effectively prevented them claiming a point.
Firstly, Liam Henderson had a goal chalked off despite there appearing to be nothing wrong with his effort after he had burst into the danger area and past the Macedonian goalkeeper before slotting home. Then seconds later, Scotland were awarded a penalty for handball before the Romanian referee changed his mind after coming under severe pressure from the irate Macedonian players and their coach, who had raced down the touchline to remonstrate. In the end, the decision was vindicated as footage showed that Scotland’s Oli McBurnie was the player who handled. The defeat left Scotland well off the pace in Group 3 with three away games remaining.
There were three Hearts-owned players in the starting XI, with Liam Smith, John Souttar and Jordan McGhee all taking their place in the defence. McGhee, on loan at Middlesbrough, wore the captain’s armband, while Sam Nicholson and Billy King, on loan at Inverness Caledonian Thistle, started on the subs’ bench. Jason Cummings, Hibs’ only representative in the squad, started as the striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Henderson, the Celtic midfielder who spent last season on loan at Easter Road, playing just behind his close friend and former clubmate. With Hearts goalkeeper Jack Hamilton, a mainstay of the Under-21s side in recent years, having stepped up to the full squad, Liam Kelly of Rangers took his place between the sticks.
Scotland made a bright start, with Bournemouth attacker Ryan Fraser shooting just wide from 20 yards after driving into the danger area in the second minute. Swansea left-back Stephen Kingsley went even closer for the hosts four minutes later when his 25-yard thunderbolt, which looked destined for the top corner, was brilliantly tipped behind by the Macedonia goalkeeper.
Souttar, who has been outstanding for Hearts in recent weeks, showed his quality in the 13th minute with a magnificent saving tackle to halt Marjan Radeski just as the Macedonian striker looked to have got himself clean through on Kelly’s goal.
The visitors weren’t to be denied much longer, however, as they took the lead in the 18th minute when Markoski drilled in from seven yards out after Scotland failed to deal with a low delivery into the box from Radeski. The Scots were temporarily rattled and Radeski went close to a second for Macedonia when he shot just wide from the edge of the box.
Scotland should have equalised in the 35th minute after Celtic attacker Ryan Christie produced some excellent play on the right before delivering a tempting, inswinging cross, but Cummings failed to get enough power on his close-range header to trouble Aleksovski.
Cummings threatened again three minutes later when Gauld picked him out with a clever lobbed pass into the danger area but the Hibs striker’s volley from 12 yards out was tipped behind by Aleksovski. Gauld then saw a shot pushed away by the Macedonia keeper as Scotland finished the first half on top.
Gauld, the Sporting Lisbon midfielder was heavily involved in the Scots’ first attack of the second half when his brilliant inswinging cross from the right was met by McGhee, but the defender’s header was clawed away by Aleksovski. It was then the turn of Souttar to threaten with a header when he met a Fraser corner at the back post, but he was unable to generate enough power to trouble the keeper.
Scotland coach Ricky Sbragia introduced Swansea City striker Oli McBurnie in place of Colchester United midfielder Craig Slater in 57th minute. It had little immediate impact in terms of getting the hosts back into the game although their cause was boosted ten minutes later when Macedonia had Egzon Bejtulai sent off after picking up two bookings in quick succession for fouls on Fraser and Henderson.
Scotland made another change in the 72nd minute, with one Hearts man replacing another when Nicholson came on for Smith. The winger was given a rousing reception as he entered the fray, with plenty Jambos clearly among a crowd of 4557, most of whom were housed in the Wheatfield Stand. They were almost celebrating seconds later when McGhee’s cross from the right eluded Aleksovski and came back off the inside of the far post. In trying to reach the high cross, the Macedonian keeper injured himself. It looked like he may have to come off, which would have left his team with only nine men as they had used all their subs, but he was able to soldier on.
Within minutes, he reacted well to stop team-mate Darko Velkoski heading into his own net. Fraser then blazed over after being teed up 15 yards out by a Nicholson cross. It was to be the Bournemouth player’s last involvement in the match as he was replaced by King with five minutes left.
Amid the aforementioned stoppage-time controversy, Scotland’s hopes of making it to Poland died.
Scotland U21s: Kelly, Smith (Nicholson 72), Souttar, McGhee, Kingsley, Slater (McBurnie 57), Gauld, Christie, Henderson, Fraser (King 85), Cummings. Subs not used: Hurst, Hyam, Cadden, O’Hara
Macedonia U21s: Aleksovski, Zajkov, Bardi, Nikolov, Radeski (Musliu 69), Babunski (Avramoski 52), Velkoski, Bejtulai, Markosi, Demiri (Pivkoski 34), Murati. Subs not used: Siskovski, Elmas, Amanovic, Kostadinov
Ref: Sebastian Coltescu (Romania)