GORDON STRACHAN’S presence at Pittodrie helped inspire Scotland Under-21s in an encouraging display against Iceland last night. The young Scots were the better side against a team sitting top of their European Championship qualifying section and could consider themselves unfortunate not to win.
The national coach, if he is to remain in place, must rebuild the senior squad following the failure to reach next summer’s European Championship finals. He requires candidates to promote to the full squad and this was an ideal time to start looking. He certainly wouldn’t have missed Reading’s Dominic Hyam, a standout in the centre of the Scottish defence.
Strachan returned from Portugal after the senior team’s final Euro 2016 qualifier against Gibraltar on Sunday. He headed straight to Aberdeen and addressed the Under-21s in person before and after last night’s match. Coach Ricky Sbragia felt his unexpected arrival was a tonic on the youngsters.
“Gordon came in before the game and had about 20 minutes to half an hour with us. It was lovely to see him,” said Sbragia. “He’s just back from the Gibraltar game and travelled the distance up here to watch. That’s great for the young players and I think it’s brilliant.
“He came in after the game to have a chat with them. He’s familiarising himself with them and it was really pleasing to see him. It raises the players’ game because they’ve got the national coach watching them. That brings a wee bit more incentive to it. I couldn’t tell you what will happen but, from my point of view, I’d love him to stay.”
Although there was plenty pleasing about Scotland after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat by France, they ultimately have only four points from the first three qualifiers. Iceland have 11 but have played two games more than the Scots. Sbragia stressed he is reasonably satisfied with the progress to date.
“We’ve got seven games to go and anything can happen. France have been exceptional. We’ve given Iceland a good game,” he explained. “There was a tempo to the game and it was very open. The two teams were trying to get a result. Both keepers made saves and I was pleased overall. We can’t complain against a very disciplined side such as Iceland. We played an extremely good team on Saturday but credit to the boys, they came back again. I was pleased we created some chances.”
Scotland set a high tempo right from kick-off with five Hearts players and two from Hibs in their line-up. The Easter Road forward Jason Cummings first tested the Iceland goalkeeper Frederik Schram with a shot from 25 yards on nine minutes. His counterpart from across Edinburgh, Sam Nicholson, did likewise minutes later. Schram was to have a busy but effective night. He gathered a swerving 30-yarder from Scotland captain John McGinn as the half-hour mark approached.
There was a fortunate escape for Sbragia’s side when Aron Thrandarson evaded his markers inside the penalty area and glanced Bodvar Bodvarsson’s cross narrowly wide of Jack Hamilton’s goal. Hamilton then produced a superb block to deny Elias Omarsson from close range after the long-haired winger charged into the Scottish box.
Scotland had been marginally the better side in the first period and aimed to build on that after the interval. The game became more open as both teams sought the opening goal. Nicholson’s 48th-minute corner was met by Jordan McGhee, whose flick was sent goalwards by Ryan Christie only for Schram to parry at close range. It was an another instinctive stop.
Seconds later, Iceland broke forward and Oliver Sigurjonsson dispatched a 25-yard drive which beat Hamilton – only to arc wide of the keeper’s left post at the last second. Again Schram denied Scotland when Stephen Kinglsey’s left-sided cross found Cummings, who volleyed on the turn and forced the goalkeeper down to his left for a one-handed save.
Hyam and McGhee looked assured throughout the evening, with Hyam winning every aerial ball he challenged for. Their concentration wavered on 60 minutes, though, when Bodvarsson’s cross was not defended and landed at Hoskuldur Gunnlaugsson’s feet. Thankfully for the defenders, he failed to control the ball and Hamilton scooped it up.
Scottish substitute Lawrence Shankland wasted a fine scoring chance when he was teed up by Christie. The Aberdeen forward side-footed his shot over the crossbar at a time when the hosts were enjoying some sustained pressure. That chance would have won the game as it transpired, but the only disappointment from this Scottish performance was that it did not yield a goal.
“Jack has made two good saves for us but their keeper is very good,” Sbragia summed up. “He made two similar saves against Ukraine, another two against France and Macedonia. The good thing is we were in there getting the chances. We want to covert them into goals but you’re denied by an extremely good keeper.”
Scotland (4-2-3-1): Hamilton; Paterson, McGhee, Hyam, Kingsley; McGinn, J Fulton (Love 76); King (McManus 84), Christie, Nicholson; Cummings (Shankland 69). Unused subs: R Fulton, Findlay, Fraser, Telfer.
Iceland (4-4-2): Schram; Arnarsson, O Omarsson, Hermannsson, Bodvarsson; E Omarsson, Bjornsson, Sigurjonsson, Gunnlaugsson; Thrandarson (V A Jonsson 64), Vilhjalmsson (Finnbogason 88). Unused subs: Olafsson, V Jonsson, Aegisson, Gretarsson, Runarsson.
Referee: Istvan Kovacs (Romania).