Naismith goal spares blushes of poor Scotland
Scotland failed to produce the sort of morale-boosting performance which might have raised hopes that they could somehow salvage an already seemingly lost World Cup qualifying campaign as they were held to an uninspiring 1-1 draw by Canada.
Gordon Strachan had been hoping a friendly against a nation ranked 50 places below them by FIFA would result in a display to raise confidence ahead of Sunday’s “must-win” match against Slovenia at Hampden.
But instead, the Scots looked exactly what they are, a team which knows they have no chance of somehow finding their way to next year’s finals in Russia, run ragged at times by Falkirk’s Fraser Aird.
It was Aird who gave the Canadians the lead after just 11 minutes and he caused the Scotland defence problems time after time with his pace and willingness to run at the heart of their back four, only the fingertips of goalkeeper Allan McGregor preventing him adding a late winner to that early strike. Steven Naismith spared the Scots’ blushes, diverting Tom Cairney’s wayward shot into the net in the 35th minute but that was about it for Strachan’s side who will be hoping the return of a clutch of familiar names at the weekend will have the desired effect.
This was a game which had struggled to capture the imagination, although it was one which Strachan deemed necessary ahead of World Cup hostilities resuming with the visit of Slovenia. Four points from the first four matches, culminating in a 3-0 defeat by England at Wembley last time out, has tested the goodwill of the most battle-hardened footsoldiers of the Tartan Army and a fixture between a home team ranked 67th by FIFA and Canada, their visitors, currently sitting 117th, was hardly likely to engineer much enthusiasm.
So, with tickets costing a tasty £22 for what was viewed as little more than a training match, it was little surprise that Easter Road, used to housing gates of more than 15,000 in a season in which Neil Lennon hopes to finally steer Hibs back to the Premiership, was someway short of that sort of total although it was apparent fears that this might attract the lowest crowd to a Scotland fixture since 1902 were well wide of the mark.
Even the presence of Hibs midfielder John McGinn in the Scotland squad – although he started from the bench – couldn’t persuade many from the Capital to venture out on a cold, blustery night when they could watch proceedings from the comfort of their armchair or even tune in for England’s friendly in Germany on “council TV”. The official attendance was given as 9158 although, it is understood, many briefs had been given away for nothing to entice a semi-respectable attendance.
Other than a first outing for Fulham’s Cairney, Strachan’s starting line-up was packed with familiar names in a formation which saw Chris Martin operate as a lone striker with Leigh Griffiths and Jordan Rhodes joining McGinn on the bench while, presumably, the total absence of a number of others was simply a case of holding them in reserve.
There was, though, a depressingly familiar start for the Scots, Charlie Mulgrew and Lee Wallace taking poor touches as they failed to cut out Maxim Tissot’s cross from the left, leaving Aird to score his first international goal.
It did, however, appear to act as a wake-up call for Strachan’s players and Robert Snodgrass went close to equalising three minutes later, his shot coming back off the woodwork with Canadian goalkeeper Simon Thomas a mere on-looker.
Adam Straith took an Ikechi Anya cross off the head of Oliver Burke before Thomas came to his nation’s rescue, fast off his line to spread himself to deny Martin after Cairney’s clever pass had sliced open the Canadian defence.
But Aird almost doubled the Canadians’ lead, running at his former Rangers team-mate Wallace only to see his shot curl inches wide of the far post before Simeon Jackson’s deflected shot ruffled the roof of McGregor’s net.
If Thomas looked a little uncertain under cross balls, there was certainly nothing wrong with his shot-stopping, the goalkeeper again standing big to save Burke’s effort after the RB Leipzig winger had burst through.
Scotland, however, got themselves level with a scrappy goal. Thomas could only push away Wallace’s cross, the ball finding Cairney lurking around the penalty spot. It was an invitation the newcomer couldn’t resist but his shot was heading wide until Naismith redirected it beyond the stranded goalkeeper.
Scotland, though, hadn’t looked entirely secure at the back throughout the first half and another crossfield run from Aird had the alarm bells ringing, the ball eventually falling for Marco Bustos, who was only inches away from giving Canada the lead for a second time.
The Scots, with Anya one of their more enterprising attackers despite being fielded primarily as a right-back, may have enjoyed a bit more of the ball in the opening 45 minutes but Canada were more than deserving of heading up the tunnel on level terms.
Strachan had introduced Andy Robertson and Barry Bannan after the interval, at the expense of Wallace and Burke but the home fans were far happier when, on the hour mark, both Griffiths and Rhodes, the only one of Scotland’s strikers who had actually started for his club at the weekend, came on for Martin and Naismith.
Seconds before Bannan had seen a low shot pushed away by Canada’s substitute goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler, the little Sheffield Wednesday man was wasteful as the rebound fell at his feet only to be lashed over the gaping goal.
Other than that 5-1 hammering of Group F minnows Malta, Scotland have found goals hard to come by, a fact underlined by the poor touch of Snodgrass when Griffith’s through ball gave him the opportunity to at least test Leutwiler.
It had been a scrappy encounter with little to enthuse the home fans although they did raise something of a cheer when McGinn was given a run for the final 14 minutes, replacing Cairney alongside Darren Fletcher in the middle of the park.
But it was Aird who continued to give the Scots a headache, the Bairns youngster forcing McGregor into a fingertip save as he rifled in a rising shot which would have ended up a couple of inches under the goalkeeper’s bar.
Three minutes of added time gave the Scots one last chance, again scorned with Rhodes unable to direct Griffiths’ low cross on target, leaving a chorus of boos ringing in the ears of those in dark blue.
Scotland: McGregor, Anya, Berra, Mulgrew, Wallace (Robertson 46), Cairney (McGinn 76), D Fletcher, Snodgrass, Naismith (Griffiths 61), Burke (Bannan 46). C Martin (Rhodes.61). Substitutes not used: Gordon,S Fletcher, R Martin, Cooper.
Canada: Thomas (Leutwiler 46), Ledgerwood, James, Piette, Hoilett, Bustos, Jackson (Fisk 76), Aird, Straith, Arfield (Trafford 90+3), Tissot (Corbin-Ong 67). Substitutes not used: Lefevre, Gasparotto.
Referee: Jakob Kehlet (Denmark).