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16 of 019

Scots get a boot in the Balkans

Kenny MacDonald, 06/09/2008
SCOTLAND surrendered in Skopje, the birthplace of Mother Teresa — and now we need a miracle to make South Africa 2010.

A tepid and listless first-half performance by George Burley's side following Ilco Naumoski’s fifth-minute goal let the home side establish themselves.

While the Scots pushed strongly down both flanks after the interval, the game settled into a depressing pattern of high balls which were easily handled by Macedonia’s three giant central defenders.

Over the piece, home goalkeeper Petar Milosevski was seldom troubled and Scotland didn’t do enough to avoid what is unquestionably a humiliating defeat.

Burley said: “In the second half we dominated them. Not many teams will do that here. The conditions were difficult but I couldn’t have asked for more from the players.

“They kept battling away but we just didn’t get the vital decisions. Sometimes that happens and I hope the next time things go our way.

“We also knew how difficult the Group would be and how difficult this makes it. Holland are probably favourites but everyone else will think they can qualify.

”Obviously we don’t have points on the board but we want to carry on the second half performance in Iceland in midweek.”

Let’s get things into a bit of perspective here. Macedonia’s competitive home record before yesterday showed 10 wins in 35 matches, but the bulk of those were against the likes of Cyprus, Liechtenstein, Malta, Azerbaijan, and Andorra.

Much has been made of their win over Croatia but that came when the Croats knew they’d already qualified for Euro 2008. The same goes for striker Goran Pandev’s international goals.

The Lazio frontman has hit 13 in 40 internationals but again, they’d come against the Luxembourgs and Albanias of the world.

Their players turn out for clubs in Cyprus, Austria, South Korea and the German Second Division. Neither they nor their team have anything in the way of real pedigree.

But although Scotland had a penalty claim waved away after the break, they totally failed to stamp their authority on ordinary opposition — and achieving qualification looks a real uphill challenge.

Put it this way. The home keeper, who plays his club football for Enosis Neon Paralimni in the Cypriot league, made his first proper save from sub Shaun Maloney’s drive — in the 89th minute.

That’s just not good enough against countries like Macedonia. Nor can the weather be blamed. While the temperature was well in the 90s at kick-off, it was hardly the inferno that had been predicted and certainly no excuse for the sluggishness of the performance.

While Scotland were clearly rocked by the early home goal, more glaring was the pedestrian nature of the performance in midfield, where all four starters had varying degrees of difficulty making any headway.

Darren Fletcher took a long time to get going and it was well into the second half before Scott Brown did anything of note. Neither Paul Hartley nor Barry Robson made an impression and both were subbed. In attack, Kenny Miller and James McFadden were starved of service and were forced to survive on scraps.

In the build-up to the short trip to Skopje, Burley had drummed into the players the necessity not to give away cheap free kicks around the box.

Despite the reservations expressed in the build-up about ref Pavel Kralovec, the official refused to be intimidated in the early stages, twice waving away free-kick claims when home players plunged acrobatically to earth in midfield.

However, the third time a Macedonian went down he awarded the free kick in an area of much more concern for Scotland — and it was to have disastrous consequences.

The free kick which followed Stephen McManus’ tackle on Goran Maznov was delayed as Goran Pandev and Scott Brown jostled for position in the wall.

When Goce Sedloski’s kick went in, Craig Gordon did well to touch it against the base of the post — but it was a red-shirted Macedonian who reacted quickest, Naumoski stroking the loose ball in from six yards out. As starts to a campaign went, it wasn’t quite on a par with the two goals conceded in the first 15 minutes in Toftir in the Faroes six years ago but it wasn’t far short.

For the next 10 minutes Scotland looked shellshocked and ragged, unable to gather either meaningful possession or momentum.

It could’ve got worse. A spark of Serie A class on 24 minutes saw Robert Petrov’s cross met by Pandev, and his left-foot volley, struck sweetly on the turn, was travelling fast enough to worry Gordon but hit Gary Caldwell and flew to safety.

Scotland finally created their first attack in the 30th minute. McFadden, who’d been a peripheral figure till then, wriggled across the edge of the box but when he finally found space to shoot, Igor Mitreski dived to block the shot.

Macedonia had a penalty appeal waved away but Scotland were caught napping when, on a breakaway following a corner, Maznov’s run through the middle wasn’t tracked. He took the ball in his stride and was picking his spot until Caldwell produced a terrific tackle.

Whatever Burley and spy in the stand Tommy McLean said at half-time perked Scotland up. Four corners had the home side pinned in defence and finally brought the Tartan Army to life. They should have equalised nine minutes after the restart.Naysmith’s cross begged for someone to put their head on it but neither the arriving Fletcher nor McFadden at the back post could supply the finish.

It nearly proved costly. When a Macedonian corner was cleared, Veliche Sumulikoski was quickest to react and his drive forced a great touch over from Gordon.

Scotland sacrificed Hartley, replacing him with Derby’s Kris Commons after 65 minutes, but there was almost an immediate setback as Gordon was once again called upon to save Scotland.

Both central defenders hesitated and allowed Naumoski to swivel and shoot, but the Sunderland goalkeeper was in the right position to block at point-blank range.

Scotland had a penalty claim waved away when McFadden went down at Milosevski’s feet and the striker was booked for complaining. They were left to rue a second half of domination in which they’d failed to to penetrate an organised defence.

MACEDONIA: Milosevski, Noveski, Petrov (Grncarov 78), Sedloski, Mitreski, Lazarevski, Georgievski, Shumulikoski, Maznov, Pandev (Tasevski 82), Naumoski (Trajanov 69). Subs not used: Pacovski, Polozani, Demiri, Ristic.

SCOTLAND: Gordon, Alexander, Naysmith, McManus, Caldwell, Hartley (Commons 65), Fletcher, Brown, Miller (Boyd 80), McFadden, Robson (Maloney 76). Subs not used: McGregor, Broadfoot, Stewart, Berra.

From the News of the World

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