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Slovenia 1 Scotland 1: Berra negates Kirm's opener to hand Levein's men a draw
By Stephen Mcgowan
The last decade has hardly been kind to Scotland’s national team. Ten years to the day since the disastrous reign of Berti Vogts began, however, the shoots of recovery continue to prod through.
To pack the suitcases for Brazil just yet would be the act of a hopeless and foolish optimist. Against a nation which has graced two of the last three major international finals, however, there were further grounds for hope here. No more and certainly no less.
The coastal outpost of Koper was no seething cauldron last night. This was a low-key encounter. As far removed from the Rio carnivals as it is possible to envisage.
Slovenia: Samir Handanovic, Brecko, Suler, Cesar, Jokic, Radosavljevic, Krhin, Kirm, Birsa, Ilicic, Dedic. Subs: Jasmin Handanovic, Kelhar, Pecnik, Volas, Ljubijankic, Vuckic, Vrsic, Matic, Mavric, Belec.
Goal: Kirm 33
Scotland: McGregor, Martin, Berra, Caldwell, Mulgrew, McArthur, Adam, Morrison, Forrest, Mackie, Mackail-Smith. Subs: Gilks, Dorrans, Bannan, Robson, Cowie, Goodwillie, Miller, Snodgrass, Hanley, Foster, Gordon.
Goal: Berra 39
Referee: Aleksandar Stavrev (FYR Macedonia).
Against a nation rated 27th in the FIFA rankings — a full 21 slots above the Scots — it was, nevertheless, a satisfactory outing.
Craig Levein spoke this week of the Slovenians — a nation with half the population of Scotland — as the model to follow. Last night, the performance of an increasingly versatile squad suggested the gap is already narrowing.
Charlie Mulgrew’s first cap was the pre-match headline, but it was Christophe Berra who claimed the post-match accolades.
The Wolves defender headed his second goal for Scotland in the 32nd minute to cancel out an avoidable first international goal for Slovenia’s Andraz Kirm. Both sides had their chances to win it, but the draw was a result with which few could argue. If anything it favoured a fairly ordinary home team capable of testing Allan McGregor on a strictly occasional basis.
With seven English Premiership players in the starting line-up, the Scots started well and came close to taking the lead.
Mulgrew’s pass inside from the left to Charlie Adam produced a stunning piece of skill from the Liverpool player, his lofted pass playing Jamie Mackie in behind the Slovenian defence.
The QPR striker took a decent first touch and thumped a left-foot angled effort which Udinese keeper Samir Handanovic pushed up onto the crossbar before smothering at the second attempt.
Handanovic had been a thorn in the side of Celtic in two Europa League games and showed strong hands to deny Mackie.
Within a minute, McGregor was called back into action at the other end, tipping a curling effort from Valter Birsa over the crossbar.
McGregor had already defied concerns over his state of mind given the troubles at Ibrox by denying Birsa when the No 10 raced onto a pinpoint pass through the centre of the Scotland defence and looked certain to score until the Rangers keeper raced from his line to block with his legs.
To say Slovenia were the stronger and better team would, however, be inaccurate. The white-shirted Scots looked comfortable with a 4-5-1 formation which left Craig Mackail-Smith to fend up front, with James Forrest and Mackie supporting on the flanks.
Dominating possession for spells, it was something of a surprise when the Slovenians took the lead in 32 minutes. The breakthrough was barely merited and owed much to some lax Scots defending.
Right-back Miso Brecko found himself in a one on one with Mulgrew on the right flank and evaded his challenge before whipping in a right-footed cross which Russell Martin looked odds on to win in the six-yard box.
Instead, however, the Norwich defender remained static as Andraz Kirm raced in front of him to bullet a header into the bottom corner for his first international goal.
If losing a preventable goal was a blow to the Scots, then it was never one of the mortal variety. They had shown enough to suggest they were capable of drawing blood.
That the Scots did so within seven minutes was a welcome bonus. The goal bore similarities to Slovenia’s in that it was the result of a towering header which should probably have been defended better.
This time, however, the damaging cross came from a corner by Adam, the Liverpool playmaker aiming a withering stare at some detractors in the main stand after Berra bulleted his header into the bottom left-hand corner of the Slovenian net from 10 yards out.
Berra scored his first goal for his country in a 3-1 win over Wales in the Celtic Nations tournament in Dublin in May.
As it was nine months ago, his goal was a reward for the well refreshed Scotland support in Koper. Built two years ago, the Bonifika Stadium was gleaming, yet modest.
The capacity of 4,200 was largely taken up by Tartan Army loyalists, flying in via Trieste and Zagreb in impressive numbers.
There was little to sour spirits in the first half. For the second, a raft of substitutions was to be expected. After 120 minutes — and an infamous penalty — in the Carling Cup victory over Cardiff City, Adam was withdrawn at half-time to be replaced by Barry Bannan.
That Levein was in a position to replace one Premiership regular with another offered further indication that, for Scotland, the pool of players is deeper than for some time.
Ten years ago today, Vogts was appointed the first overseas coach in what proved a disastrous move. The German was barely helped by the players at his disposal.
Times have changed and it was a trend reflected in the quality of the possession at times here.
Another chance for a Scots winner also drifted narrowly past the post in 79 minutes when, with his last act of the game, Mackie’s back-flicked header skidded just inches wide of the post from a cross from substitute Robert Snodgrass.
Mackie was replaced immediately by Kenny Miller, one of a raft of second-half substitutes which also included Graeme Dorrans and Barry Robson as well as Bannan and Snodgrass.
Few of those who played can say they let themselves — or their country — down.