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28 of 046

A chance goes a-begging for Scotland

Published on Sunday 9 September 2012 00:00

EVEN before this World Cup qualifier had kicked off it was clear that the Serbs were determined to be gracious visitors. Throughout Julie Fowlis’ entertainingly rapid rendition of Flower of Scotland, the Serbian team applauded their hosts’ anthem.

Not to be outdone, virtually every Scottish voice in the stadium replied with a collective crackle of approval as skipper Gary Caldwell was presented with a golden medal to mark his 50th cap, and soared into a crescendo of encouragement as the game got underway. The Hampden roar was back, and it sparked into life at every hint of an attack. If there were a World Cup for fans, Hampden would be an impregnable fortress.

The afternoon kicked off with a palpable sense of shared purpose. The players provided a diet of unstinting effort, while the home supporters supplied the decibels every time Scotland charged forward or whenever Branislav Ivanovic touched the ball.

The Chelsea right back came in for such brickbats after dismissing Scotland’s challenge before a ball had even been kicked yesterday. Perhaps it was also the dayglo green and white boots which irked the bluenoses in the crowd. Or perhaps not, given that Allan McGregor also appears to have picked up a similar pair since he decamped to Istanbul (or maybe he’s had them for a while and just didn’t fancy wearing them at Ibrox – go figure, as Kenny Miller presumably says to his team-mates in Vancouver).

Indeed, they were a colourful lot at Hampden, with only the supposed weak link in Scotland’s chain, Huddersfield Town’s Paul Dixon, eschewing shocking pink, orange or yellow boots in favour of good old utilitarian black. His performance matched his boots: unflashy, but did the job sufficiently well to be named man of the match on his Scotland debut. At times he even did the increasingly creaky Christophe Berra’s job for him too.

Not that the boots maketh the man. After all, Charlie Adam and Alan Hutton were both sporting dazzlingly bright slippers, yet both roamed down the right with a bristling, pugnacious purpose, looking for all the world like two Glaswegian bruisers out for a rammy. Whatever the pair lacked in precision, in such men Scotland had players who were never going to take a backwards step.

Sadly, however, Scotland also had plenty who did exactly the opposite in the opening exchanges, back-pedalling in defence and failing to step up and press the visitors. For much of the first half, the centre of Scotland’s midfield retreated when not in possession, gifting Serbia far too much time during a first half when the men from the Balkans – reckoned by most Serbians to be their worst crop of players in living memory – were allowed to look like a team of world-beaters.

Craig Levein presumably mentioned during his half-time talk that teams which can’t dominate their home ties don’t get to World Cup finals, probably employing his very own Hampden roar in the process. If he did, it worked. After the break, Scotland desperately tried to step up a level. They pressed when Serbia had the ball, pushed forward when they didn’t, and injected a level of urgency.

It almost bore dividends too. Miller was wrongly called back for offside when played through, and then the lone striker completely misjudged a simple header for what should have brought the opening goal. Steven Naismith was also put clean through only to pull the ball just wide of the post. Then the hapless Miller had a free header right inside the Serbian box from a free-kick, only to head the ball harmlessly up in the air.

Scotland were putting in the effort, but if the perspiration was there, the inspiration was sorely lacking. Who knows what the Canadians have been putting in Miller’s food, but it’s not a dash of ruthlessness, and I wonder how many people in the stadium pondered on just how many of those chances He Who Must Not Be Named (aka Steven Fletcher) would have converted.

Levein eventually took off James Morrison and Miller with ten minutes to go and brought on Jamie Mackie and the prodigal son, Jordan Rhodes. James Forrest almost won it in injury time with a cracking shot but Scotland also came close to losing it at the death when, with the clock on 90 minutes, Hearts defender Andy Webster was left in Dusan Tadic’s wake and McGregor did well to block the Serb’s shot just as he seemed certain to win the game.

It was a climax which seemed to put it all in perspective. Scotland may not have roared out of the blocks, but nor did they follow Wales and succumb to a side many places ahead of them in the world rankings. There was a limited willingness to focus on the positives from the Tartan Army, who politely clapped Scotland off the park. After all, they knew that their men had given their all, it’s just that their all wasn’t good enough. Just how costly that will be remains to be seen, but it’s unlikely Croatia or Belgium are quaking in the boots. Nor Macedonia for that matter.

Taken from the Scotsman

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