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Bumpy start on the road to Brazil

Richard Wilson
Sports writer

Scotland, it would seem, remain more adept at stockpiling disillusionment than collecting points.

Supporters were irked enough to begin chanting for Jordan Rhodes to be brought on midway through the second half as Craig Levein's side began their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign with a scoreless draw at Hampden.

The fans had been goaded by missed opportunities, but the disgruntled reaction expressed in booing at the final whistle was a commentary on the whole game.

An international manager can never overlook the mood of his country. Craig Levein said last week that he does not need to be popular, but a crisis can grow quickly out of entrenched dismay. Group A is expected to be so tight that two wins from their first two games, both at home, were considered essential to the Scots. That belief had to be hastily redrawn last night.

Frustration was natural, since Serbia are no great side. The defence is held in high esteem because the players are employed by leading clubs, but that does not make the individuals foolproof.

Mistakes were commonplace, and Scotland broke through on several occasions, but their performance generally lacked command – and creativity, too – while Kenny Miller will regret misjudging the flight of James Morrison's cross in the second half since he was unmarked and should have headed the ball on target from close range.

Levein took solace from the chances missed because they at least existed, but that often seems a skewed logic. He was adamant, too, that it should be considered encouraging that some of his players can still perform better than this.

The obligation was to win this game, though, and Scotland are now not only under more intense pressure to beat Macedonia on Tuesday night, but also to recover from this setback by gaining unexpected points on the road.

"We did enough to win the game, but we just didn't score the goals," Levein said. "I see a huge progression. I'm disappointed, but I'm not down about it. Even when they had spells of pressure, I didn't feel we were going to lose a goal. It's a point, so we're off to a start. You can't go back over and over the chances and wish they had gone in. It's done. Would I be frightened to take Serbia on again? No, I wouldn't. We can improve as things go on."

Rhodes came off the bench with nine minutes to play, but it was Jamie Mackie who made a greater impact with his hard running. Scotland's other substitute, James Forrest, might have scored in injury time, but his shot was blocked by Serb goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic from a tight angle. This was in keeping with the rest of game, such as late in the first half, when a misplaced clearance went straight to Charlie Adam, and his first-time pass sent Miller through, but he shot over.

Scotland defended stoutly enough, but Serbia did not exert a great deal of pressure. Gary Caldwell was effective sitting in midfield, but the attacking players were mostly indifferent. Levein has emphasised the range of options he has for the midfield four he plays behind his sole striker, but the resources need to meet those expectations.

Robert Snodgrass was bright in the opening half and almost scored when Caldwell played him into the penalty area but his shot struck Stojkovic's chest.

Morrison was typically busy and accurate, and twice created chances for Miller in the second half, including the misjudged header. Adam and Steven Naismith were less impressive, though, and much of the first-half display was humdrum enough for changes to have been expected at half-time. Levein waited until the 69th minute to introduce Forrest for Snodgrass, though.

Scotland looked jaded by then. They had pressed high up the field and Serbia were restricted to an Aleksandar Kolarov free-kick that Allan McGregor saved, and another Kolarov shot in the second half that flew wide.

"We had five or six players who were under 21, we're probably the youngest team in Europe," Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic said. "There's not enough experience, but they will learn."

The home side should have been better able to impose themselves on such an underdeveloped team. There was plenty of possession, but not enough incisive passing.

Levein added: "By the way, we might drop some more [points at home]. It's what counts at the end of the tournament, not the start. This was a game I thought we should win, we played well enough to win, but we didn't. It happens. I'm not going to get overly excited about that."

Scotland's only good fortune was that Naismith's elbow on Srdan Mijailovic was missed by the referee. "It's football, not ballet," Mihajlovic said. There was little pleasure to be found in watching Scotland's display, though.

Taken from the Herald

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