Scotland’s World Cup hopes reignited with late winner
There was hysteria at Hampden Park as Martin Skrtel’s late OG gave Scots the win
Scotland 1 Slovakia 0
Scotland huffed, puffed but – oh so crucially – celebrated. Incredibly, for a team that five games ago looked to have no chance of World Cup qualification, the unlikely dream is still alive. Victory in Slovenia on Sunday will secure second place in Group F, with Gordon Strachan’s own redemption from the point where his position was close to untenable extraordinary in itself.
Against 10 men, and having struck woodwork twice, it would have been so typically Scottish for a scoreless draw to play out. Instead, via the most scrappy of own goals from Martin Skrtel, Hampden partied in a manner once natural.
A pre-match mistake would have been the affording of undue attention to Scotland’s aspirations. Slovakia, who swatted them aside in Trnava last year, arrived here with an excitement of their own. With a fixture against Malta to come on Sunday, the Slovakians knew any reward here should be sufficient to all-but secure a play-off berth. Unsurprisingly, the visitors were backed by a large and noisy support.
Scotland’s had been disrupted by the loss of two midfielders, Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong, to injury. Barry Bannan and Darren Fletcher – it is hardly unfair to say the latter was discarded as a starter two years ago – earned promotions into the team.
Given what was at stake, Scotland’s bright opening was understandable rather than worthy of high praise. A terrific Andy Robertson cross from the left found no takers before a penalty claim that further intensified a gripping atmosphere. Kieran Tierney felt he was bundled over illegally by Robert Mak but the award of a spot-kick would have been highly contentious.
Scotland’s early superiority came within a superb Martin Dubravka save of being rewarded. Christophe Berra connected with a Leigh Griffiths cross at the back post, with the defender’s net-bound header clawed away by the visiting goalkeeper. Slovakian relief was soon to turn to anger; if illegitimately so.
Mak had already been booked for a poor challenge on James Forrest before an act of blatant simulation inside the penalty area that reduced Slovakia to 10 men. Slovakia complained bitterly about the issuing of a second yellow card when the fury would have been better directed at the 26-year-old midfielder. Mak had needlessly left his country to play with a handicap for 67 minutes.
Slovakia had been unambitious even before the loss of one of their main creative forces, which made their subsequent attacking rather surprising. Intricate build-up work between Stanislav Lobotka and Adam Nemec resulted in the former being denied by timely dive of Craig Gordon. Moments later, Marek Hamsik was primed for a clear shot from 18 yards before Fletcher provided a necessary intervention.
A ragged opening to the second period would have been of concern to Strachan on the simple basis that Scotland did not create a clear-cut chance despite territorial dominance. Slovakia threatened to punish that bluntness in a swift counter attack, with Gordon saving well from the marauding Jan Gregus.
Scotland’s response was to deploy a two-man forward line, with Chris Martin introduced from among the substitutes. There was nearly an instant dividend, Griffiths stinging the palms of Dubravka with a fierce 20-yard-drive.
Earlier discord from the Scottish support relating to Martin had been doused by a late and crucial winning goal here against Slovenia, at a time when Scotland’s qualification hopes were hanging by a thread. Strachan, clearly, was seeking repeat salvation. He came within the crossbar’s width of getting it, Martin having produced a curling shot from long distance.
Slovakia’s motivation was altogether different. With 20 minutes to play, the receipt of a point was even more appealing to them.
The crossbar prevented Scotland again, this time from a Griffiths free-kick. Angst was still being displayed by the time James Morrison’s strike from six yards was saved by Dubravka. Scotland were now essentially camped in Slovakia’s half, seeking the goal their battle-weary following so audibly yearned.
The problem was, two decades of international failure meant those fans also knew the alternative ending all too well. This time, they need not have worried. Ikechi Anya burst down the left flank, his cross and Martin’s attention sufficient to confuse Skrtel. The centre-back’s attempted clearance rolled into the net.
Onwards to Slovenia and Scotland’s most significant fixture in decades. Who could have believed it?