There was nothing glorious about this latest Scottish failure and, though everyone should be spared the tired cliches and sob stories after the sharing of four goals to close another fruitless campaign, they will keep on coming, of course.
Scotland’s progression to the point where a World Cup play-off berth would have been secured with victory in Slovenia was admirable. Nonetheless the key failings that led to such a stirring recovery being necessary were glossed over. There can be no sugar‑coating a second-half horror show in Ljubljana which means Scottish absence from major tournaments stretches to 22 years.
Even worse for Gordon Strachan and those who inevitably will attempt to justify a new contract for the Scotland manager over the coming days is that capitulation arrived from the point where his team were ahead. Slovenia were beaten to a play-off spot by Slovakia by the time the dust settled on a keenly contested Group F but still had the nous to pick off Strachan’s men with relative ease. The blunt reply to any suggestion of Scottish progress lies in the final group standings.
Typically this game closed with a Scottish bombardment of the opposition goal. Typically the final whistle arrived before Scotland players applauded what remains an outstanding support. But the outcome, the net result, was one that few can legitimately argue was not deserved. Perhaps acceptance of that failure for too long has been part of the problem.
The long-shot nature of Slovenia’s play‑off hopes was demonstrated by a sparse home crowd on the outskirts of Ljubljana. The home side nonetheless enjoyed the better of the opening 45 minutes despite being a goal behind at the interval. With Josip Ilicic at the heart of their attacking promptings, Slovenia placed considerable pressure on what remains a makeshift Scotland defence.
What the hosts lacked was a player with the recurring potency of Leigh Griffiths. The sum of Slovenia’s first-half pressure was a tame Tim Matavz shot, easily held by Craig Gordon, and an Ilicic effort into the side netting after Griffiths had opened the scoring.
That goal owed much to generous defending but Griffiths still supplied the kind of composed finish which should set him apart as one of the most gifted Scottish strikers in history. That is no exaggeration, even if recent competition is not exactly ferocious. The Celtic player strode on to a James McArthur header after Slovenia only partly cleared a Darren Fletcher cross, Griffiths angling the ball home from what was hardly a straightforward angle. Curtailing of Griffiths’s celebrations was visible in front of the travelling support; a yellow card would have ruled him out of any play-off.
If the assumption from that 32nd-minute juncture was that Slovenia would lack the heart to claw their way back, how wrong that sense was to prove. The half-time withdrawal of Aljaz Struna, who was clearly culpable in allowing Griffiths scoring space, was the first indicator of this. More damaging for the Scots was Slovenia’s fresh sense of purpose.
This endeavour was quickly rewarded. Debate will rage as to whether Gordon should have collected an Ilicic free-kick, looped deep to his back post, or one of the Scottish defenders should have hammered the ball clear. What transpired would be castigated at amateur league level.
The substitute Roman Bezjak was not hanging around for any inquest; he supplied a downward – and free – header which dribbled into the Scottish net with such slow motion that it surely intensified Strachan’s pain. Things could have been worse for the 60-year-old within three minutes, Gordon instead producing a spectacular and one-handed save from a deflected Bezjak shot.
Before the match Strachan had stressed the difficulties attached to altering tactical systems for the second game of a double header. He then did precisely that, deploying Chris Martin alongside Griffiths at the head of a 4-4-2 set-up. The policy was abandoned straight after Slovenia’s equaliser.
There was to be no Scottish renaissance. In what yet another defensive comedy show, an Ilicic corner was laid back to the path of the advancing Bezjak. For the second time in 20 minutes the 28-year-old could probably not believe his luck. This time he passed the ball beyond the stranded Gordon from 12 yards.
Owing to Slovakia’s anticipated canter at home to Malta, Scotland now required two goals against a team who had not conceded any here in this qualifying campaign before Griffiths’ in the first half. Fletcher should have supplied one, the Stoke City midfielder instead scooping over the crossbar after Matt Phillips created the chance.
Robert Snodgrass, on for McArthur, provided hope when flicking over the advancing Jan Oblak. The most wounding Scottish moment came as Slovenia’s goalkeeper somehow clawed away a deflected Phillips cross. Amid a frantic closing stretch Slovenia’s captain, Bostjan Cesar, was sent off after a clash with Christophe Berra in midfield. The defender’s anger was misplaced. It is the Scots who were entitled to that emotion – again.
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