A first-half goal from Marcos Urena ensured Alex McLeish’s second spell in charge of the national side got off to a disappointing start as Scotland went down 1-0 to Costa Rica at a half-full Hampden.
Despite the game being settled by that single goal, Costa Rica gave the impression throughout the 90 minutes that they were playing well within themselves and could, if necessary, quickly move up through the gears.
For McLeish, this challenge match represented the beginning of a long journey which he hopes will culminate with Scotland ending what will be a 22-year wait for an invite to the finals of a major tournament when Euro 2020 comes round.
Four more friendlies – against Hungary on Tuesday night, Mexico and Peru at the end of the season and Belgium in September – will give him further opportunities to put his squad together, but he’ll undoubtedly feel few staked their claim on the evidence of last night.
Hibs midfielder John McGinn came on as a late second-half substitute to win his sixth cap, while Hearts goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin was denied his national team debut as he watched on from the substitutes’ bench.
The first and only time these teams had met previous to this encounter, Scotland were the World Cup veterans. Costa Rica won that match, surprisingly at the time by the same scoreline as last night, with Italia 90 the Scots’ fifth successive appearance on that global stage. The Central Americans were very much the rookies as they made their debut at that level. How times have changed.
Since that infamous meeting in Genoa – bar an appearance at France 98 – the finals of major football tournaments and Scotland have become distant strangers, while Los Ticos have become regular participants, in fact reaching the quarter-finals in Brazil four years ago.
And this summer in Russia they’ll be doing it all again, drawn against Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia, with the Tartan Army once more reduced to watching from afar on television.
As such, this meeting found two countries at vastly differing stages in their development. Costa Rica coach Oscar Ramirez – like McLeish, he had played all those years ago in 1990 – is honing his team for that opening game against Serbia in Samara on June 17 and his team reflected that, boasting the likes of Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas, captain Bryan Ruiz of Sporting Lisbon, Espanyol’s Oscar Duarte and Giancarlo Gonzalez of Bologna – not to mention Celtic’s Christian Gamboa.
McLeish, on the other hand, deployed four new caps. Scott McKenna, Scott McTominay – watched from the stand by his manager at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho – Kevin McDonald and Oli McBurnie all made their debuts, with McLeish having said he’d use this match and Tuesday night’s against Hungary as an opportunity to have a closer look at those younger players who would like to believe they have what it takes to cut it at this level.
McLeish’s pre-match warning that Costa Rica would be tricky opponents proved prophetic as Sunderland’s Bryan Oviedo sped down the left touchline before cutting it back for Urena to side-foot through the legs of Charlie Mulgrew and beyond goalkeeper Allan McGregor.
The pace and movement of Ramirez’s side at that point had the Scots looking as if they might be in for a long night, but they began to settle, former Hearts defender Callum Paterson rising to head Matt Ritchie’s corner wide before McBurnie – scorer of six goals in his last eight matches for Barnsley – made space to drill in a low shot which caused Navas some discomfort.
And there were faint cries for a penalty when McBurnie, ploughing that lone furrow up front, tangled with Duarte as they made for Andy Robertson’s low cross, but German referee Tobias Stieler wasn’t interested in the slightest.
McLeish had spoken before the match of trying to restore the excitement and fervour which seems to have deserted Scotland in some measure, but the 20,488 inside Hampden had seen little to get them off their seats, the feeling being at their opponents could quite easily go up through the gears.
Ruiz certainly did that as he caught Andy Robertson the wrong side of him, ploughing into the box and unleashing a rising shot on the angle, McGregor appearing to get the slightest of touches to put it on to his bar and so avoid the loss of a second goal.
The Scots had carried little in the way of a threat, although McBurnie was using his physique to good effect at times, doing to so give Callum McGregor the opportunity to play a well-weighted ball into the path of Ritchie. His shot carried plenty of power and there was an anxious moment for Navas as he pushed it high into the air to land on the roof of his net.
It was, however, a rare moment of worry for Navas and his team-mates.
Scotland (3-4-2-1): A McGregor; Hanley, Mulgrew (McGinn 81), McKenna; Paterson, McTominay (Armstrong 58), McDonald, Robertson; Cairney (C McGregor 58), Ritchie (Murphy 87); McBurnie (Phillips 78). Unused subs: Archer, McLaughlin, Christie, Forrest, Douglas, Cummings, McLean, Fraser, Hendry.
Costa Rica (3-5-2): Navas; Acosta, Gonzalez, Duarte; Gamboa (Smith 75), B Ruiz, Borges, Guzman (Tejeda 56), Oviedo (Calvo 78); Urena (Y Ruiz 69), Colindres (Wallace 63). Unused subs: Moreira, Briceno, Segura, Mitchell, Azofeifa, Waston, Gutierrez.
Referee: Tobias Stieler (Germany).