Croatia are heading for a World Cup play-off in a state of utter chaos, while Scotland are loaded with renewed optimism as they prepare for the best part of a year in cold storage.
It’s a funny old game, football.
A year ago tonight, October 16, the Scots, in what would prove Craig Levein’s last match in charge, were battered in Belgium and sat bottom of Group A with just two points from a possible 12. With confidence totally shorn and little sign of where a victory was going to come from in this wretchedly-difficult section, no-one on these shores would have put up a fight if the campaign was halted there and then.
Yet here we are, a year on, with Scotland buoyed by a run of three wins from four competitive games and ruing the fact they have to wait until next September and the onset of Euro 2016 qualifying to try to build on this impressive sequence. Hope has returned for a national team which less than seven months ago was being outclassed by Wales and then Serbia in a harrowing March double-header.
A revival which began in June, when Scotland held firm in Zagreb to stun a star-studded Croatia side that was beginning its own descent into crisis, gathered further pace last night, with Gordon Strachan’s revitalised team putting the Balkan big-shots in their place for a second time in the most emphatic fashion in Glasgow last night.
This was Scotland’s most notable home victory for just over six years, when Alex McLeish’s team blew Ukraine away on that giddy autumn day at Hampden in 2007. As a first competitive win on Scottish soil for over two years, it lent further credence to the feeling that Strachan is well on his way to re-igniting the spirit the national team showed during that memorable campaign when Walter Smith and McLeish took the nation agonisingly close to qualifying for Euro 2008 despite being pitted in a group alongside Italy, France and Ukraine.
While Scotland are poised to shoot up the world rankings as a result of their improvement over the past few months, the magnitude of last night’s win is slightly diminished by the fact Croatia are a side currently in disarray. They arrived in Glasgow ranked tenth in the world, but if they replicate last night’s form in the play-offs next month, when they could meet Ukraine or France, they will be unlikely to make it to Brazil.
You didn’t have to understand Croatian to decipher at full-time that the noisy travelling support were furious with what they had witnessed from their illustrious team. Even then, it came as a surprise when their embattled manager, Igor Stimac, revealed to the media in the bowels of Hampden afterwards that he had tendered his resignation and was waiting to hear if it had been accepted. The former Derby County and West Ham defender did add that he would like to stay on in the role, but felt he had no choice but to at least give his paymasters the option to release him from his contract as his popularity in his homeland nose-dived further.
Stimac had suggested beforehand that his team would treat their trip to Hampden as a training exercise ahead of their play-off next month, but he resisted the opportunity to rest his big guns and his team duly punched the ball about the pitch impressively early on, albeit without really looking like scoring. The home support – perhaps understandably, given the dead-rubber nature of the game – was subdued before kick-off and there was little to rouse them in the early exchanges. Indeed, the opening quarter was a harrowing one for the Scots as they struggled to get the ball off their visitors.
Strachan cut an agitated figure as Luka Modric, who was suspended when the sides last met in June, pulled the strings to his heart’s content for the men in red-and-white checks. Yet, in the same way that the totally unforeseen victory in Zagreb proved the catalyst for this Scottish revival, Robert Snodgrass’s goal against the run of play provided the springboard for what would become a comprehensive win for the men in dark blue.
With 28 minutes on the clock, the Norwich City player, who had been moved inside from his usual wide-right role to play in the No. 10 position just behind lone forward Steven Naismith, burst into the six-yard box and rose above the Southampton defender Dejan Lovren to nod home a magnificent left-foot cross by Charlie Mulgrew, who had bust a gut to run on to Naismith’s pass and get to the bye-line. Snodgrass, who scored the winner in Zagreb, celebrated by sucking his thumb in tribute to his newborn daughter, Leonie.
Suddenly Scottish tails were up and three minutes later, the goalscorer almost doubled his tally when he drove a low, angled shot that was touched on to the outside of the post by goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa after playing a one-two with captain Scott Brown, who worked superbly alongside James Morrison in the engine room.
While Modric remained the stand-out player on the pitch, his Croatian team-mates toiled to get anything going. Mario Mandzukic, the much-feted Bayern Munich forward, was once again made to look hapless by the emerging Scottish centre-back pairing of Grant Hanley and Russell Martin. His night was typified just before the break when he thumped a volley into the ground and it bounced up and harmlessly over Allan McGregor’s bar.
The Scotland goalkeeper was barely tested all night, apart from a long-range Modric shot at 1-0 and a late header by substitute Nikica Jelavic at 2-0. The only time McGregor was beaten was in the 64th minute when substitute Eduardo looked all set to equalise after racing clean through and rounding the ’keeper, but the former Arsenal forward shot just past from a tight angle.
Croatian misery was compounded in 73 minutes when Scotland doubled their lead. Ikechi Anya, who again looked like he can be a useful addition for the Scots, was felled by Domagoj Vida as he burst into the left side of the box and after Barry Bannan’s penalty was saved by Pletikosa, Naismith marked his 25th international appearance by following up to lash home the rebound.
Hampden finally started to roar again. We may have just witnessed the dying embers of another failed qualifying campaign, but Scotland look like they might just be rising from the ashes.