It was another Qualification campaign to forget as Scotland lost out on any hopes of reaching Russia next summer with a draw away to Slovenia in Ljubijana.
The campaign looked to be starting off in positive fashion. When the fixtures were released, it looked to be the perfect start for the Scots with an away trip to minnows Malta before playing Lithuania at home.
Scotland started brightly in the Ta’Qali Stadium, and got their rewards with an opening goal inside 10 minutes by Robert Snodgrass. However, just four minutes later, Alfred Effiong equalised as the Tartan Army put their heads into their hands. Surely not an opening day drop of points against the side everyone expects to be the whipping boys?
Well, for Strachan’s side, it was a job well done come full-time with Chris Martin scoring to regain Scotland’s lead before Jonathan Caruana was sent off with just over half an hour to play. Robert Snodgrass scored a double in the second half to complete his hat-trick, sandwiched in between a Steven Fletcher strike; Luke Gambin was sent off in injury time to compound matters for the Maltese. It was a comfortable evening in the end for Strachan’s side, but it all changed with the second goal and then the quick sending off at the beginning of the second period. A solid start but tougher tests were to come.
England defeated Slovakia 1-0 while Lithuania drew 2-2 at home to Slovenia; a sign of intent by Edgaras Jankauskas’ side, who the Scots would face next at Hampden Park.
Just over a month later and the Tartan Army turned up in reasonable numbers to support the nation in their first home qualifier of the campaign. A win here would make it the start all expected, but, it is Scotland we are on about and we don’t do things the easy way!
It was a frustrating evening and the stands began to get restless. Fiodor Cernych changed the mood around Hampden as his strike put the visitors ahead. With 30 minutes to play, it was a massive blow to Scotland and their hopes of qualifying – someone had to stand up from somewhere to salvage a point, at least.
Thankfully, a point was forthcoming with midfielder James McArthur firing home to equalise late on. 1 point is better than none, as they say…but two points dropped here has probably cost Scotland their place in Russia.
Apart from England, who defeated Malta at Wembley to make it two wins out of two, the rest of the group was wide open. Slovenia and Slovakia played out a draw, meaning Scotland were second on four points as things stood.
They weren’t staying in that position for long, though, as Slovakia pounced to defeat the Scots just three days later. Robert Mak scored a double with Adam Nemec sealing a win for Jan Kozak’s side in the second half. A dreadful display by Strachan’s men which left the Tartan Army in disarray as the qualification campaign began to fall apart.
Calls were made for Strachan to resign; talks were held between those at the SFA, but, it was decided that the former Scotland international would remain in charge of the nation for the remainder of the campaign.
Strachan was defiant and promoted his sides chances against England at Wembley. With Lithuania having defeated Malta and Slovenia drawing with England in the last round of fixtures, Scotland found themselves toiling on 4 points heading into match day four against their arch rivals. A defeat here and Strachan’s men could almost call it a day already, despite being less than halfway through the group stage.
The positive vibes created by the manager were short lived: It was a brave performance by the men in pink but the English were clinical. Despite Scotland having nearly triple the shots of the hosts, goals by Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana and Gary Cahill condemned their neighbours to a second defeat of the campaign alongside a sense of frustration.
With Slovakia winning 4-0 against Lithuania and Slovenia defeating Malta, the fifth group match of the qualification phase was billed as a must-win. With the table showing no positive signs, it meant 3 points were the minimum to keep any hopes of reaching Russia in 2018 alive.
In a match dominated by the hosts, it looked as if missed chances and a clinical edge would come to fruition as Strachan and his side rued the opportunities they had created already. Chris Martin was flung on and within minutes, he sent the 20,000 home fans in attendance into raptures after managing to squeeze the ball home in the dying minutes. A vital goal in the campaign for the Scots and a slight glimmer of hope for the Tartan Army to cling onto heading into the closing stages of the campaign.
Slovakia and England won again, meaning Scotland had it all to do. Second place looked like the best bet and that was something which almost hinged on the next result. It was part two of the battle of the Auld Enemy and a defeat here would likely consign Scotland to another failed qualification attempt.
It was a tense opening half and when Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain struck in the second half, the hopes of any group stage revival disappeared. Then, a five minute spell of madness gave Scotland fans every type of emotion possible. Leigh Griffiths became a national hero with two late free-kicks which he curled past Joe Hart to fire the Scots in front with seconds remaining. A victory here wouldn’t just be significant because it is England, but it’d be an unexpected three points which would, in a way, cancel out the home draw against Lithuania.
However, come 93 minutes and the game was level again – Spurs striker Harry Kane was left unmarked to slot past Craig Gordon to thwart the Tartan Army’s celebrations and grab Gareth Southgate’s side a point. This was expected, right? Scotland always do things the hard way, don’t they?
Slovenia defeated the Maltese for a second time in the group stage which Slovakia snuck a victory away to Lithuania. While the home draw wasn’t a terrible result, the manner in which the Scots threw it away so late on frustrated the nation and ultimately, cost them a play-off berth come the end of the campaign.
With top spot now out of reach for Scotland, finishing second had to be the target; and there was no reason why they couldn’t. Mathematically, four wins from the final four games would seal a sensational comeback and allow Strachan to lead his side into a two-game shoot-out for a place in the World Cup.
As Scotland defeated Lithuania, through goals by Stuart Armstrong, Andy Robertson and James McArthur, it was a tantalisingly late Miha Mevlja goal which won Slovakia the match against Slovenia. A draw in this match would haave suited the Scots but a vital 3 points by the Slovaks put them in pole position in the group to finish behind winners England.
Goal Difference looked like a way in which Scotland may qualify for the play-off stage, but they needed goals and lots of them, with their for and against columns not as good as Slovakia. The penultimate home game of the campaign saw Scotland face minnows Malta. A chance for a barrowload? Not with Scotland, unfortunately. Christophe Berra got the ball rolling early on but only Leigh Griffiths was able to capitalise in the remaining 81 minutes as Strachan’s side continued their good form. England’s defeat of Slovakia kept the hopes of the nation alive, but it meant Scotland needed to beat Slovakia AND Slovenia in their remaining two games to have any chance of qualifying, unless Slovakia slipped up in their final match of the group against Malta.
England defeated Slovenia at Wembley, with a last minute goal by Harry Kane, and that meant a win for Scotland would almost certainly kill off any hopes of Srecko Katanec’s side reaching Russia, while also taking it down to the last day of the group phase.
Three points were a must and that is what they got – albeit fortuitously. With Robert Mak sent off after 20 minutes for a second bookable offence, it gave the Tartan Army hope of a vital win but the extra man didn’t seem to make things count until the 89th minute…step forward Slovakia’s captain, Martin Skrtel. The former Liverpool defender diverted Ikechi Anya’s cross into the net to leave inspired goalkeeper Dubravka helpless. A sense of relief around Hampden Park as the Scots went into the final game of the group knowing a victory would seal second spot.
And so, it came down to the last match of the section – unbelievably, Scotland had found themselves in a position to qualify despite a horrendous start. Strachan played Chris Martin and Leigh Griffiths up front in an attacking formation as the Tartan Army turned out in their droves once again. It was the Celtic striker, too, that opened the scoring in the first half and it looked as if the unbelievable may become achievable. Two second half goals by Roman Bezjak – combined with Slovakia comfortably beating Malta – meant that the Scots would fail again, unless they can turn it around late on. Strachan through the kitchen sink at the hosts in the final few minutes and substitute Robert Snodgrass did provide hope. It was too little too late, however, as Slovenia held on for a point. The Scots fail to reach the play-offs on goal difference. Did we expect anything else?
Ultimately, in reflection, the matches against Lithuania and England at Hampden Park cost us dearly. A sturdier defence for a few seconds longer and this scenario would be totally different. A more composed front-line against Lithuania in the opening stages of the group and, again, things may be so much more positive.
I think the character shown by the management staff and the squad has been encouraging. The revival has shown that we are capable of competing, but, it has taken a bit of luck along the way too.
Looking forward, I think we should stick with Strachan for the next campaign. He seems to have things moving steadily upwards again and while this campaign started slowly, it has ended in reasonable fashion, despite the disappointment. If that can be taken into the European Championship Qualification campaign for 2020, which is almost a year away, then we have as good a chance as any of finally breaking our Major Tournament hoodoo and qualifying once again.
The future is bright, in my opinion, with the players who are coming through and the squad being assembled. It is likely to be an all-changed squad come next year with likely many players retiring from international duty now as they progress to the latter stages of their career.
Below, I have outlined what I think may be the Starting XI for the campaign ahead:
Goalkeeper – Jordan Archer; The Millwall stopper has impressed in the Championship as his stock begins to rise. With Allan McGregor and Craig Gordon now in their 30’s, it is possible Archer – who has been in the squad over the past few months – may make the step-up in the months and years to come.
Right-Back – Callum Paterson; Once the former Hearts man fully recovers from his injury, I am sure he will regain his spot in the starting line-up for Scotland. The now Cardiff full-back has proven he has attributes that can increase the Scots’ attacking intent in the future and I believe he will become a big player for our nation.
Centre-Back – Liam Cooper; Similarly to Jordan Archer, another player who has broke through at Championship level and has shown quality to warrant a call-up. Cooper will only continue to get better and with more exposure to the international environment, I feel he is one who will be phased into the starting eleven in the years to come.
Centre-Back – Grant Hanley; Hanley is someone who has been in the squad and picked up caps for numerous years now. He is still young enough to progress further and as his experience grows, I feel he will also become a natural part of the Scotland set-up going forward.
Left-Back – Andy Robertson; It was a toss-up between Robertson and Kieran Tierney, but the former Queen’s Park defender just edges it for me. It is great for a country like Scotland to have so much competition in these areas, with Tierney showing he is more than capable of filling in on the right too. Both will be major players in the coming decade.
Right-Midfield – Oliver Burke; The new West Brom winger has gained experience within Strachan’s squad but has most recently been playing his international fixtures in the Under-21’s, where he has been captain. I think he will step-forward to the senior squad once again in the next campaign where he will establish himself as a key figure in the Scots’ midfield.
Centre-Midfield – Stuart Armstrong; Unfortunately, for Strachan and Scotland, the Celtic midfielder was injured for the last two group matches for Russia 2018, but, he has already established himself in the most recent campaign. The ex-Dundee United man will only continue to improve as he gains valuable experience in the Champions League.
Centre-Midfield – John McGinn; The creative playmaker will surely go on to bigger and better things in the future. The Hibs man has impressed under Neil Lennon and forced his way into the international set-up. With the new campaign a year away from kicking off, I envisage the ex-Buddies midfielder to be a regular come the Euro 2020 qualifiers.
Left-Midfield – Matt Richie; The Newcastle man is in a similar situation to Armstrong in that he was injured for the final two matches of the World Cup 2018 campaign but he will be, hopefully, available for selection as the Scots bid to reach Euro 2020. The Premiership winger has been influential and impressive under Rafael Benitez and could become another key component under Strachan when he is fit.
Striker – Stevie May; I think that Aberdeen and May could well be the perfect match. If the former Preston man could regain top form after a horrendous injury then he could force his way, in my opinion, into the international set-up. The Tartan Army are craving natural goalscorers and for me, the ex-St Johnstone forward is capable of doing that if he can get back to his best.
Striker – Leigh Griffths; The Celtic hitman has found himself as the sole saviour at times in the recent months and the striker will become even more influential next campaign with the next generation coming through. A bright future ahead of Scotland with the striker in the form of his career. If he continues to improve in the coming months and years ahead, the Tartan Army may finally end their Major Tournament hoodoo.
Scott Bain – Goalkeeper at Dundee
Anthony Ralston – Right-Back at Celtic
Jason Kerr – Centre-Back at St Johnstone currently on loan to Queen of the South
Ross McCrorie – Centre-Back at Rangers
Graeme Shinnie – Left-Back / Centre-Midfielder at Aberdeen
Chris Cadden – Winger / Centre-Midfielder at Motherwell
Callum McGregor – Centre-Midfielder at Celtic
Stevie Mallan – Centre-Midfielder at Barnsley
Barrie McKay – Winger at Nottingham Forest
Callum Smith – Striker at Dunfermline Athletic
Jason Cummings – Striker at Nottingham Forest