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9 of 019

Scots fall flat in the Balkans

FYR Macedonia 1 Scotland 0
Douglas Alexander at City stadium, Skopje

It has just started but already Scotland’s campaign to reach the next World Cup looks to be in jeopardy. They could not recover from a dreadful start in stultifying Skopje yesterday and now require a victory in Reykjavik on Wednesday or they will surely not be in South Africa in the summer of 2010.

Although George Burley told his players all last week there would be no excuses, the inquest will inevitably focus on the timing of this game, accepted at the group fixture meeting in Holland last December by SFA president George Peat and Gordon Smith, the chief executive, when faced by Macedonian intransigence.

They will now rue not letting a computer throw out a lottery of games, as it did for the Euro 2008 qualifiers when Ukraine were similarly obstinate. Burley, too, will have to take his share of the recriminations for Scotland’s slovenly start which left them chasing the game in such cruel conditions for northern Europeans. A goal down inside five minutes, Scotland pushed for an equaliser right to the end but could not find it.

The temperature in the City stadium was nudging its way up through the nineties fahrenheit beforehand, and that was in the shade of the main stand of the decrepit ground where Scotland’s outfield players did their warm-up. Meanwhile, the riot police outside sweated in their heavily-padded uniforms. The Tartan Army received a miserly allocation of just 998 tickets, although as many again had somehow been procured for the home section, yet still many seats were left empty and there was unrest outside as those without tickets were driven back from the gates by the police.

With James Morrison unfit because of a knee injury, the first team chosen for a competitive game by Burley was as anticipated, with only Alan Hutton and Barry Ferguson injured from the manager’s

preferred picks and replaced by Graham Alexander and Barry Robson. Macedonia, meanwhile, played a 3-4-3 with Goran Pandev, the Lazio striker, stationed just behind their front two and considered their major threat.

Scotland’s start was the sort that managers envisage in their darkest nightmares, a goal down within five minutes. Goran Maznov came through the middle then saw Stephen McManus’s challenge as the perfect chance to win a free-kick. Goce Sedloski thumped it in low and hard, and when Craig Gordon turned it onto his right-hand post, Ilco Naumovski had drilled in the rebound before any Scottish defender could react.

Now Burley’s side were hot and bothered. Alexander had the tall Naumovski constantly in his face, Scott Brown found Robert Petrov always at his back, and errors, such as Gary Caldwell’s aimless lump forward, told of disintegrating

confidence in the melting heat. Pandev coiled into a left-foot volley on the edge of Scotland’s box which would have torn into the goal had it not been blocked, then sliced a route through Scotland’s defence with the ball at his feet only for Veliche Shumolikoski to be stopped by an offside flag and McManus’s saving tackle as he prepared to finish.

Most of Scotland’s best moments, meanwhile, involved James McFadden. With a typical run, he skimmed across Macedonia’s box trying to open space for the finish with his left foot, but when he finally got his shot away it was blocked by Nikolce Noveski. He then aimed an awkward bouncer at Petar Milosevski’s near post when a throw-in was quickly chucked to him. The keeper’s flustered reaction brought Scotland a corner but not the goal they craved before half-time.

Perhaps, though, they were fortunate not to be further behind. The home supporters bellowed for a penalty when Maznov threw himself theatrically under Gordon’s challenge in the box, and Caldwell had to make a wonderful tackle on the same player before Pandev tamely stroked the loose ball straight to Gordon.

Scotland needed the respite, from heat and pressure, the interval offered and it was now that Burley had to earn his corn, massaging morale and making the tactical changes required to retrieve a result. His biggest problem was probably getting midfielders closer to his strikers, an unforgiving task in these temperatures.

His side certainly started the second half as they should have the first. Robson curled a corner right under Milosevski’s crossbar, forcing him to tip over, and Brown, anonymous in the first half, started to assert himself from the right, linking with Darren Fletcher before putting in a powerful shot which was unfortunately too straight to seriously trouble the Macedonian goalkeeper. Scotland could not focus solely on attacking, though, and

Gordon had to make a fine save when Shumolikoski tried to surprise him with a rising shot from the edge of the box.

Now the riot police waded into the home end after a flag was unfurled with the face of Johan Tarchulovski, a former Vardar Skopje fan leader who was convicted at The Hague of violent crimes against ethnic Albanians. A reminder of the unstable politics in this part of the world. The visiting fans, though, were more worried by Scotland’s precarious position in the match and Naumovski might have had his and Macedonia’s second with a swift swivel and shot which was beaten out by Gordon.

Burley had pushed on Kris Commons seconds before this and the Derby County winger might have made an impact when Gary Naysmith’s clever header sent him down the left, but his cross was cut out before it reached McFadden. The Birmingham striker’s frustration was now palpable and he was booked when he felt he should have had a penalty in a leg tangle with Milosevski as the ball broke between them. It was a decent, but debatable, claim.

It was now time to go for broke and Burley did, pushing on Shaun Maloney and Kris Boyd for Robson and Kenny Miller. Maloney tried his luck with one last shot but Milosevski saved it and the ball would simply not break the way of Boyd. The home players cavorted in the centre circle at the end while Scotland’s traipsed off, burnt by Skopje’s fire, and hoping to be salved in Iceland.

FYR Macedonia: Milosevski, Sedloski, Mitreski, Noveski, Lazarevski, Grozdanoski, Shumolikoski, Petrov (Grncarov 78min), Maznov, Pandev (Tasevski 82min), Naumovski (Trajanov 68min)

Scotland: Gordon, Alexander, Caldwell, McManus, Naysmith, Hartley (Commons 65min), Robson (Maloney 75min), Brown, Fletcher, McFadden, Miller (Boyd 79min)

Taken from

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