Scots’ play-off bid dashed but Levein is buoyed by recent form and greater knowledge of squad

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AS Scotland’s Euro 2012 qualifying campaign ended in Alicante with a comprehensive 3-1 Group I defeat to Spain, manager Craig Levein insists he and his squad are in far better shape now than they were at the outset of the qualification bid which was extinguished in the Costa Blanca last night.

In order to guarantee a first play-off since 2003, the Scots’ result against the world and European champions needed to at least match Czech Republic’s result in Lithuania, but their hopes were dashed after a first-half double from David Silva.

David Villa netted a third in the 54th minute in the Rico Perez Stadium before Scotland substitute David Goodwillie, on for Charlie Adam, scored a consolation goal from the spot after Victor Valdes had fouled Craig Mackail-Smith. And – with the Czechs winning in Lithuania – it was all over for Scotland, who have not made the finals of a major tournament since the 1998 World Cup in France.

There is no shame in losing twice to Spain – it was 3-2 for the visitors at Hampden – but in hindsight, Levein’s men will look back on the two points dropped against Lithuania in the opening game and the defeat and draw against the Czechs. However, the Scotland boss insists he was still trying to assemble his side in the early stages of the campaign. Since the home game against Spain a year ago today, his record shows progress is being made, with six wins and a draw from his last ten games, the three defeats coming against Brazil, Ireland and now the Spanish.

Indeed evidence of the evolution of the squad since the first game 13 months ago is highlighted by the fact the starting XI against Lithuania included the now-marginalised-likes of Lee McCulloch, David Weir, Barry Robson and Stephen McManus, while, incredibly, Paul Hartley, who has since hung up his boots, was on the bench.

“I am disappointed we didn’t take any points tonight but the harsh reality is that Spain were better,” he said. “It doesn’t get much harder than playing the European and world champions at their ground. But I feel we have improved and if we had three or four games before we started the campaign we could have got a better start. But I didn’t know my best team then. It has taken me over a year to feel we have a strong squad.

“The campaign started slowly as we tried to establish who were our best players, trying to pull it all together but the second part was better. We missed out this time but we are determined not to miss out the next time. For the World Cup we will start from a better position, with a solid base.”

Craig Mackail-Smith passed a fitness test on a back problem and was chosen to lead the line again as Levein kept the same starting XI from Saturday’s win in Liechtenstein. Skipper Darren Fletcher overcame an ankle knock while fellow midfielder Barry Bannan played with a strapping on his Achilles injury. Spain, looking for a perfect qualification campaign, included star names such as Silva, Xavi and Villa – although Fernando Torres was dropped to the bench.

A huge travelling support gave the Scots encouragement but, as expected, Spain kept the ball almost from the first whistle. It took only six minutes for Spain to take the lead from an attack down the left, Villa setting up defender Jordi Alba, who cut the ball back for Silva to sweep the ball low past goalkeeper Allan McGregor. Scotland stuttered then responded and moments later Bannan’s cross from the right to the far post just evaded the stretching Steven Naismith. Scotland had their best chance of the half when Naismith’s backheader found Fletcher but the Manchester United midfielder volleyed over from 12 yards. McGregor had to dive low to his right to tip a powerful drive from Villa away for a corner, which the Scots survived.

Four minutes from the break the Rangers keeper made a great save from Santi Cazorla, but with a minute remaining Silva worked a one-two with Pedro before driving low past McGregor for Spain’s second goal. In the 54th minute the Scottish defence was cut open again and this time Silva set up Villa who, from 14 yards, calmly slotted the ball past McGregor for the third. Just past the hour mark Bannan had an effort from the edge of the box easily saved by Valdes, before McGregor made another save from Villa. In the 66th minute, Scotland were awarded a penalty when Valdes fouled Mackail-Smith and sub Goodwillie scored his first international goal from the spot. Six minutes later Goodwillie had a great chance to set up an exciting finish when Alan Hutton knocked on a McGregor goal-kick but he blasted over.

Spain finished with a clean sweep of wins in Group I but boss Vicente del Bosque was as generous as he could be about the visitors. “The first half was organised but there were more opportunities in the second half. Scotland have improved from the first game at Hampden, they are more stable. I watched them in Liechtenstein and they were very good but I think the heat affected them.”

Steven Naismith conceded Spain had been too good for his side. “They’re unplayable,” he said. “They move the ball so quickly, it’s hard to track the ball. We could have defended a little better but that’s why they’re world and European champions.”