It wasn’t quite a full-blown miracle of Estadio Azteca but it was a minor one. Somehow, against all the odds, Scotland left this intimidating venue with dignity intact and their future prospects looking perhaps a little brighter.
The side sent out by Alex McLeish was not just a shadow team. It was the shadow of a shadow team. But while it must be marked down on the ledger as a defeat, the manager’s third in four games since starting a second spell in charge, Scotland retreated from such a grand setting with honour following the alarm of conceding after only 13 minutes.
Giovani Dos Santos’ precise finish kissed the inside of debutant Hearts goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin’s post before nestling in the net.
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It sparked concern that pre-match fears of a humiliation would be realised. But the Scots survived the test of character in this vast, broiling bowl. Everyone involved among the Scots party will be the stronger for it.
A narrow defeat was as much, indeed probably far more, than could have been hoped for in the circumstances.
The Mexican fans were the ones who were disgruntled. They had come to view a mauling while bidding their team farewell prior to the World Cup finals in Russia. What they witnessed was a misfiring side held at bay for the most part by patchwork visitors whose entire starting XI could not muster 30 caps between them. Mexico’s, by contrast, boasted over 500.
The home fans vented their fury at the end. Beer cartons that were tossed from the gods plunged the great distance towards the pitch, splattering those below as they sailed overhead. Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio was the focus for much of the displeasure for refusing send popular former Manchester United player Javier Hernandez, or “The Little Pea”, on as substitute.
Unlike against Peru, Scotland did not have to rely on the mercy of hosts content to hold what they had. Mexico’s poor finishing was a major factor but so was Scotland’s stout, often heroic defending. The Scots even showed some adventure of their own as well.
Oli McBurnie is no-one’s idea of a finished article. But he can claim to have worn the No 9 shirt for Scotland in Estadio Azteca and might have bolstered this tale with a goal three minutes after the interval. His powerful header from just outside the six yard box from Johnny Russell’s cross shook goalkeeper Guillermo Ochea’s left hand post.
Scotland could so easily have buckled after losing the early goal. While rarely looking at ease, they held out. Sorties forward were not as rare as against Peru, with McBurnie failing to pick out Ryan Christie at the back post shortly before he went close with his header.
Stephen O’Donnell and substitute Charlie Mulgrew cleared efforts off the line at the other end. Skipper Scott McKenna, aged just 21, embodied this Scottish performance. He was unfamiliar to most Scotland fans this time last year. But he led out a team comprising a debutant goalkeeper and three first-time starters. Callum Paterson was the most experienced with seven caps. There was not a single international goal among the starters.
These were some of the starker details giving cause for concern when the team-sheets were delivered to the tribune high up in Estadio Azteca.
With every passing day, McLeish’s options seemed to be whittled down. Scott McTominay was rendered unavailable after feeling tightness following last week’s defeat in Peru. This was a fresh blow after the departures of Lewis Stevenson and Matt Phillips after Lima.
At the stadium synonymous with “the Hand of God” Scotland were blessed with fortune when Mexico twice hit the woodwork.
A post came to their aid after 27 minutes to keep Layun’s shot out. Lozano rattled the bar in the second half, by which time McLeish had switched goalkeepers.
Scott Bain began the season at Stark’s Park with Dundee, he ended it by keeping his own personal clean sheet in the Azteca. He was forced to beat two efforts away within a couple of minutes of taking his place in goal and looked confident throughout his time on the pitch. McLaughlin, too, looked assured.
A dangerous looking pass-back from McGeouch provided the Hearts ‘keeper with a test early on. He kept his nerve.
That was the biggest challenge in surroundings like these. Stands that seem to stretch into the sky help induce a sense of claustrophobia. McLeish asked his players for one last effort at the end of a long season, and got it.
Scotland focused on securing minor triumphs. A first shot on target for the tour fits this criteria: McGeouch found Paterson and the Cardiff City player swivelled and shot, Ochoa saving low to his left after 11 minutes.
Two minutes later Mexico struck. Layun’s attempt at an overhead kick was blocked. The loose ball was picked up by Carlos Vela, who set up Dos Santos for a casual, almost dismissive finish off a post into the corner.
McLaughlin, who had left a lot of space for the striker to aim at, barely moved. At this point it would have taken a brave person to predict Mexican would score no further goals. Layun hit the post shortly afterwards.
Had his 25 yard effort swerved in rather than hit the upright it might well have proved a different story. Scotland grew more confident the longer they remained just a single goal behind.
They continued to live dangerously at times, no more so than when Mexico bore down on goal with only Graeme Shinnie left at the back for the visitors in a three-against-one scenario. Mexico wasted the chance, cue another frustrated outburst from the stands. The hosts also had a goal by substitute Oribe Peralta ruled out for off-side.
Scotland inched nearer the final whistle. We report often of glorious failure with Scotland. This was something different: failure that was far from as epic as feared.