Yes, a play-off place for Euro 2012 remains mathematically possible, a viable proposition as Scotland boss Craig Levein has steadfastly maintained in the wake of the weekend’s controversial clash with the Czech Republic.
Levein will feel his argument has been strengthened with this win over Lithuania, one which now makes it a straight fight between the Scots and the Czechs although Michal Bilek’s side remain favourites to take second place behind Spain, the runaway winners of Group I as confirmed by last night’s 6-0 hammering of Liechtenstein.
It’s all a case of ifs and buts, working out the possible permutations with Scotland and the Czechs both still to play Spain while each country faces a tricky away match, in the Scots case against Liechtenstein - a side beaten only by a goal in the seventh minute of injury time at Hampden – while Bilek’s men face a trip to Lithuania.
Despite the three points gained via the left boot of Steven Naismith, the Czechs remain a couple ahead and clearly remain favourites but whatever the outcome, Levein insisted he was encouraged by the progress he has seen over the course of this campaign.
He said: “I’d rather be in a better position, I’m still angry about what happened on Saturday. We played a good game, were in the position with minutes left on the clock to win. We did everything we needed to do but it was taken out of our hands.”
Levein, though, was delighted with the reaction from his players having insisted they’d use the sense of injustice they were feeling to good effect. Narrow the win might have been but, in the eyes of the national coach, one which was well merited.
He said: “We played what I considered to be an entertaining style of football. My only criticism would probably be we were not clinical enough in front of goal and made our job more difficult because of that. We were missing experienced players and the ball fell to guys who had not played a lot of matches. Overall I have to be happy with the way they have played.”
As always, though, Scotland got their win the hard way, Darren Fletcher looking on in agony as his penalty a minute before half-time was saved by Lithuanian goalkeeper Zydrunas Karcemarskas before Steven Naismith claimed the game’s only goal four minutes after the interval. Levein. though, was full of praise for his captain who played his second match in four days having been laid low with a virus for months. He said: “We spoke about penalties and he said he would take them. It won’t be the first or the last penalty he will miss.
“But if we are to talk about Darren I would rather talk about his performances considering the difficulties he has had. To play two 90 minutes after being out so logn shows you the mark of the man. The rest of the players take great encouragement from him so let’s not worry too much about a missed penalty.”
With the memories of Jan Rezek’s dive which earned the Czech Republic the penalty which all but ended Scotland’s hopes of finally qualifying for the finals of a major tournament after 14 long years still raw in the memory, it was, perhaps, little wonder that Saulius Mikoliunas fouond himself the target for the Tartan Army.
Hampden, somewhat less full than a few days earlier, hadn’t forgotten the Mikoliunas doing exactly the same four years ago, an action which earned the former Hearts star the two-match ban which Levein is now seeking for the latest miscreant.
As a consequence Mikoliunas, now with Ukrainian outfit Arsenal Kiev, found himself jeered and cheered in equal measure, taunted while on the ball and mocked when dispossessed.
Icelandic referee Kristinn Jakobsson soon found himself tested, a couple of tumbles and quizzical looks being met with a stony stare which suggested he wasn’t going to be so easily conned as his Dutch colleague Kevin Blom, although, to be fair, those early skirmishes took place in no-man’s land rather than in and around the penalty areas.
Mikoliunas, along with team=mates Marius Zaliukas, Deividas Cesnauskis, Linas Pilibaitis and substitutes Arvydas Novikovas, Kestutis Ivaskevicius and Ricardas Beniusis provided familiar faces among the visitors thanks to their Tynecastle connections while the Scotland line-up was perhaps a bit less so, Levein forced into four changes from Saturday’s disappointment, Kenny Miller and Scott Brown through suspension while injuries claimed Alan Hutton and Charlie Adam, their absence offering first starts in a dark blue jersey for Don Cowie, Barry Bannan and David Goodwillie.
Levein, however, stuck to his preferred formation with Goodwillie operating in Miller’s role as a sole striker, the Scots understandably taking a few minutes to settle before creating two decent chances within the space of three minutes, Christophe Berra arriving at the back post to meet Phil Bardsley’s flick from Bannan’s corner but unable to direct the ball on target before Cowie slashed a Goodwillie touch high over.
The home fans, while desperate for the victory which would keep their flickering Euro 2012 hopes alive for another few weeks, were somewhat subdued, well aware the damage done early in this campaign – including that no-scoring draw in Kaunas on the opening day – had been Scotland’s undoing, Blom’s weekend blunders having simply confirmed their worst fears.
Clutching at straws they might have been, but it was the Scots who were the far more adventurous of the teams, both of which have found themselves, barring an unexpected sequence of results, battling it out for third place in Group I. And as half-time approached they began to test Karcemarskas, Fletcher abandoning his holding role to sting the goalkeeper’s hands.
James Morrison did likewise before Lithuanian striker Tadas Labukas blatantly handled Bannan’s free-kick, leaving Jakobsson with no option but to point to the penalty spot. Alas, Fletcher’s effort from 12 yards wasn’t the best you’ll ever see, giving Karcemarskas the time to dive low to his left to push the ball aside.
After all the fuss made since the weekend about penalties it was somewhat ironic that the Manchester United star, earning his 55th cap to equal that of Old Trafford legend Dennis Law, should have made a mess of the opportunity,
His disappointment, however, was eased somewhat five minutes into the second half as Hampden was awakened from its slumbers with a goal, Goodwillie easing the ball out to Bannan who picked Naismith’s blind-side run perfectly, the Rangers forward stretching out his left leg to beat Karcemarskas via the inside of the post.
Bannan presented Naismith with a glorious opportunity to seal the win when he pounced on a poor clearance from Karcemarskas to deliver an inviting cross which found his team-mate’s near post run. On this occasion, though, Naismith could only head wide.
Scotland almost paid for that miss seconds later as Tomas Danilevicius rose to meet a cross from Novikovas but, like Naismith, he was unable to get his glancing header on target.
Whatever the accusations made against Blom at the weekend one fact was overlooked, that Rezek was given the opportunity to make the most of Danny Wilson’s challenge because Scotland became edgy, dropping back to defend on the edge of their own penalty area and, again, Levein’s players were hit by a dose of the jitters in the dying minutes.
Lithuania sensed their opponents’ nervousness and that an unlikely equaliser was on the cards, causing more than a few missed heartbeats, none more so than a dipping shot from Novikovas which dropped inches over Allan McGregor’s crossbar.