There was to be no respite for the increasingly embattled Alex McLeish as his Scotland team suffered their second defeat in the space of three days at a half-empty Hampden.
The manager was in desperate need of some form of boost from last night’s friendly after coming under fire in the wake of Thursday’s abject UEFA Nations League defeat by Israel. While the performance, for an hour at least, was much improved against a Portugal side missing talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, McLeish was ultimately left to pick over the bones of a sixth defeat in eight matches since being reappointed manager in February.
For context, it is worth noting that Gordon Strachan’s reign was terminated a year ago, in the immediate aftermath of a seven-game unbeaten run.
Only a consolation goal from Hearts player Steven Naismith with the last kick of the match spared McLeish a louder barrage of boos than those which were lost in the lingering cheer for the Scots’ late goal.
It came as little surprise that McLeish made several changes to the side that had started the error-strewn 2-1 defeat in Haifa. There were six in total, with three of them enforced by the withdrawals from the squad of defensive trio Kieran Tierney, John Souttar and Charlie Mulgrew. Kevin McDonald, Johnny Russell and goalkeeper Allan McGregor, the only player to perform well in Israel, were the other three players to drop out as they were listed among the substitutes. Stephen O’Donnell, Andy Robertson, John McGinn, Naismith and Callum McGregor were the five to retain their places.
They were joined in the line-up by Celtic trio Craig Gordon, Jack Hendry and James Forrest, as well as Scott McKenna, Stuart Armstrong and Oli McBurnie. Following a few days of incessant debate about the merits of Scotland persisting with the 3-5-2 formation, the absence of Tierney – one of two high-calibre left-backs in his squad – allowed McLeish an obvious opportunity to revert to four at the back. It was one which he took, deploying the team in a 4-4-2 formation, with Naismith playing just off McBurnie in attack.
The Scots looked far more sure-footed in this set-up in the early stages, playing the ball about the pitch in confident fashion in the opening minutes. After Portugal’s Sergio Oliveira thumped an 11th-minute free-kick into the wall, the Scots had the first real close call of the match in the 14th minute when Beto had to pull off an acrobatic save to prevent team-mate Neto heading into his own net from a Forrest cross. The resulting corner, taken by McGinn, broke out to Armstrong, who fizzed a powerful left-footed shot just over from the edge of the box.
The Scots then had another couple of half-chances, with McKenna nodding a McGinn free-kick harmlessly into the arms of Beto and McBurnie headed over from a McGregor cross.
The hosts had a major let-off in the 27th minute when Bruma seized on to a loose headed clearance from Hendry inside the box and sent a low shot towards Gordon’s left-hand corner, but McKenna did just enough to deflect it behind.
Although it seemed Portugal were playing within themselves, the Scots could be reasonably satisfied with the way they had gone about their business for most of the first half. Indeed they almost went ahead in the 36th minute when Forrest received possession wide on the right and clipped in an inviting cross, but Naismith’s glancing header from an awkward position ten yards out drifted agonisingly beyond the far post.
At the other end, Gordon had to get down impressively to stop Eder – Portugal’s winning goal hero in the Euro 2016 final – drilling home the opener from inside the box in the 41st minute. The visitors only had to wait another two minutes to seize the advantage, however, as they punished Scottish slackness. After McBurnie lost possession cheaply in the opposition half, the Portuguese worked the ball up the left to Kevin Rodrigues, who was allowed far too much time and space to cut the ball back into the danger area and Helder Costa duly knocked the ball past Gordon.
This late aberration took the shine off an otherwise promising first-half display from the Scots.
They started the second half well, with McGregor driving a low left-footed shot across the face of goal and wide of the far post in the 49th minute before McGinn’s low shot from 25 yards out was deflected behind. The home fans thought their team had equalised in the 53rd minute when McKenna launched himself head-long at a McGinn corner, but his header fizzed agonisingly wide of Beto’s right-hand post.
The Portuguese began to suppress the Scots’ threat, however, and had a couple of decent chances to extend their lead before Eder duly did so when he powered home a header after meeting a free-kick delivery from Renato Sanches ten yards out.
Bruma then put the game beyond the beleaguered Scots with an emphatic finish from inside the box in the 84th minute before Naismith at least ensured some late cheer for those who had remained to the end as he curled in his 11th goal of the season for club and country after being teed up in the box by substitute Gary Mackay-Steven.