BILLY KING’S first Scotland goal was one of few positives from a disappointing European Under-21 Championship qualifying defeat by France at Pittodrie.
Ricky Sbragia’s side were already 2-0 down with Ryan Gauld red-carded when King produced a close-range finish in the fourth minute of stoppage-time.
The Hearts winger replaced his club colleague Sam Nicholson on 78 minutes and looked delighted to score his maiden goal for Scotland Under-21s. However, it was a token crumb of comfort on a day when the classy French largely overran their Scottish opponents.
While Sbragia relied on players from Crewe Alexandra, Fleetwood Town and Oldham, his French counterpart Pierre Mankowski assembled a squad from Europe’s most recognised clubs. The giant Adrien Rabiot is a regular in midfield at Paris St Germain. Teenage winger Kingsley Coman is on loan at Bayern Munich from Juventus – a deal which includes a first-option clause to buy him for a total of £20 million. Benjamin Mendy is first-choice left-back at Marseille.
The gulf in experience showed, although the young Scots could not be faulted for effort. An early own goal by Stuart Findlay set them back and Corentin Tolisso doubled France’s advantage after the break. They fought back bravely despite Gauld’s red card 16 minutes from time. King’s late consolation puts him in contention to start tomorrow’s qualifier with Iceland.
“We’ll see how everyone is. We don’t have any injuries at the moment,” said Sbragia. “There will be some tired legs and we’ve got to see how Monday goes, get a feel for how they are. We’ll need to consider whether we keep the same team or change it a little bit. Iceland will be a different type of game. They’ve got two days recovery but we should be ready for it.”
Gauld’s dismissal for a cynical challenge from behind on Marcus Coco means he misses the Iceland game. He lost possession in midfield and charged back to put in a tackle fuelled by frustration.
“He’s given the ball away in an area where we shouldn’t give it away,” explained Sbragia. “From what I saw from the dugout, he’s lunged in. It’s one of those ones where the ref might book him or send him off but he’s given him a red card.
“He’s disappointed and obviously we’ll miss him because he’s a talented young player. I have sympathy for him. It’s a forward’s challenge and he hasn’t got away with it. Credit to the players, they carried on. It’s difficult going down to ten men against an exceptional team.”
The French started their precise passing machine from kick-off and moved the ball around the Pittodrie surface at speed. Scotland tried to break up their rhythm and two of France’s influential players were forced off after challenges with Scottish captain John McGinn.
First, Tiemoute Bakayoko departed on eight minutes after the Hibs midfielder caught him late on the turn. The replacement, Thomas Lemar, was only on the field three minutes when he delivered the cross for the first goal. The midfielder’s low delivery from the left flank rolled across Scotland’s six-yard box to the back post, where Stephen Kingsley’s clearance ricocheted off Findlay and into the net for an unfortunate own goal.
McGinn executed a firm but perfectly fair tackle on Coman on 20 minutes. After hobbling around for a few moments, the highly-rated teenager was also substituted. Scotland got some joy with quick balls in behind the French defence. Gauld’s volley crashed off a post on 18 minutes and, 20 minutes later, Jordan McGhee’s flick landed in the arms of Mouez Hassen in the French goal. That was as close as the Scots came to equalising.
Tolisso made it 2-0 France shortly after the interval. He collected Callum Paterson’s clearance about 25 yards from goal and proceeded to run through the Scottish defence unchallenged. His finish high beyond goalkeeper Jack Hamilton was one to admire, although there was no excuse for defenders standing off.
Hamilton blocked well when confronted by Lemar one-on-one 60 seconds later to prevent a third French goal. At 2-0 up, they were content to see the game out. Scotland’s afternoon worsened, however, when Gauld was ordered off after 74 minutes. He was dispossessed by Tolisso inside the opposition half and the French sprung into a counter-attack through Coco. The Sporting Lisbon midfielder sprinted back and slid in for a late tackle from behind which left Coco in a crumpled heap. Referee Marco Guida produced an instant red card.
Scotland rallied and forced a goal through King in the fourth minute of stoppage-time. He tucked his finish home from close range after Shankland’s shot on the turn fell into his path. It was simply too little, too late, though.
Scotland started this campaign with a 2-1 win in Northern Ireland last month. Defeat by the French makes it crucial to take something from group leaders Iceland tomorrow.
Scotland (4-2-3-1): Hamilton; Paterson, McGhee, Findlay, Kingsley; Slater (Shankland 58), McGinn; Christie, Gauld, Nicholson (King 68); Cummings (McManus 79).
Unused subs: R Fulton, J Fulton, Love, Hyam.
France (4-3-3): Hassen; Amavi, Pavard, Laporte, Mendy; Bakayoko (Lemar 8), Tolisso, Rabiot; Coman (Coco 23), Haller (Crivelli 90), Walter.
Unused subs: Maignan, Guilbert, Lenglet, Jean, Crivelli.
Referee: Marco Guida (Italy).