Georgia show up Scotland’s deficiencies in Tbilisi
Republic of Ireland can move up to third in Group D with win over Gibraltar
Scotland’s Shaun Maloney is tackled by Georgia’s Guram Kashia during the Euro 2016 Group D qualifier in Tbilisi. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA
Georgia 1 Scotland 0
Scotland’s national team has become so used to harsh realities that another one probably will not be difficult to accept. Defeat to Georgia, the team ranked 147th in the world, has most likely fatally undermined Gordon Strachan’s aspirations of automatically leading his nation to a first major tournament since 1998. If Scotland cannot emerge unscathed from matches such as these, they do not deserve to dine at football’s top table in any case.
By the time Scotland arrive back in Glasgow the Republic of Ireland are all but certain to have taken third spot with a win over Gibraltar on the Algarve, with Strachan left with the task of getting his side in shape for a meeting with world champions Germany at Hampden Park on Monday.
The surprise in Tbilisi stemmed from quite how dire the Scottish performance was, given what is at stake. In every area, Strachan’s team was clearly second best. Rather than grasp opportunity, Scotland timidly surrendered their hopes. In 90 drab minutes, any concept of huge Scottish progression under Strachan’s guidance was, at the very least, rendered highly questionable.
Georgia did not have to work particularly hard for a success which doubled their points tally. The perception that Scotland struggle when facing lesser lights of international football exists for a reason. Georgia, September 2015, can be added to a lengthy tale of woe.
Strachan’s approach has been to play down the significance of every fixture Scotland have played in Group D. It was, nonetheless, impossible to ignore the magnitude of this encounter for the Scots. For all intents and purposes, it was surely the biggest match of Strachan’s tenure. If Scotland could prevail here, Monday’s visit of Germany would have an element of free hit about it.
Vast ranks of empty seats illustrated Georgian indifference towards their team. But in Kakhaber Tskhadadze the hosts had a new coach, seeking to take at least one scalp from a qualifying section which has been riddled with disappointment.
From six games leading up to this one, Georgia had claimed only three points. Since ending a Scottish European championship dream back in October 2007, Georgia had won a total of just four qualifying ties. For all Strachan was right to respect the opposition, there was no justifiable cause to fear them.
In stifling heat, Georgia duly started with the purpose their coach would have demanded. Valeri Kazaishvili wastefully blasted a shot wide when three attackers were bearing down on just two Scottish defenders. The same player created space for himself before, again, failing to hit the target in the 20th minute.
After a strangely pedestrian start, it took 27 minutes for Scotland to offer a threat of their own. A terrific low cross from Andy Robertson only narrowly evaded the onrushing Steven Fletcher. The 2,000-strong visiting support, who had been noticeably subdued, had finally been handed cause for optimism.
That sentiment was briskly wiped out as Georgia took the lead their play undoubtedly merited. Scotland were to pay for their meek, lifeless opening period.
Levan Mchedlidze was the creator, with a knock-down to the lively Kazaishvili. There was still work to be done, with the Vitesse Arnhem midfielder skipping between Scottish defenders before offering a fine, right-foot finish.
A banner in the stand hailed Georgia’s 2007 success; Scotland had the sudden feeling of history repeating itself. Another recurring theme was of first-half shortcomings; Scotland were similarly woeful on their last outing, against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin.
It represented an act of serious generosity from Strachan that he retained the same 11 players for the restart. Scott Brown, the Scotland captain, was among those clearly toiling. In Brown’s defence, fitness may have been a more pertinent issue than form.
There was no stirring second half start from the Scots. Strachan waited until the 59th minute to introduce the pace of James Forrest and, curiously, Grant Hanley at centre back. It was in Scotland’s middle to front area that shortcomings were at their most glaring and two goals, realistically, were needed.
Georgia, surely, were surprised at this Scottish approach. Giorgi Loria, normally the first choice Georgian goalkeeper, had been consigned to the substitutes bench because of injury. Questions over the strength of his replacement, Nukri Revishvili, could not be confirmed or otherwise because he was put under absolutely no pressure at all.
The same could not be said for David Marshall. The Cardiff City goalkeeper produced an excellent save to deny a long-range Mchedlidze attempt. James Morrison had earlier been culpable by gifting cheap possession. Inevitably, Strachan’s next move was to turn to the Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths in place of the ineffectual Ikechi Anya. It could have been a vain move within seconds, Morrison again giving the ball away; Mchedlidze watched his angled shot fly into Marshall’s side netting.
By now, Scotland needed a stirring finale. The involvement of Griffiths did add something approaching spark to their attack but clear-cut chances were still notable by their absence. An 88th minute set-play provided rare opportunity after Morrison was upended, 22 yards from goal. Shaun Maloney’s attempt was deflected for a corner which failed to cause necessary panic in the Georgian rearguard.
There was to be no late hurrah despite a further string of corner kicks. On a five hour flight to Glasgow, the enormity of this failure would have hit home. Only unlikely success over Germany can reignite Strachan’s dream.