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Croatia 0 Scotland 1: Battered, bruised but bolstered by bolt from the blue
PETITION Uefa now, let's see if we can get the Euro 2016 qualifiers to start tomorrow.
The World Cup has been dead to Scotland for some time but incredibly, in the least likely circumstances imaginable, a pulse was detected in the corpse last night. What an unfathomable, glorious result Gordon Strachan and his players delivered in Zagreb. Nobody saw it coming – in fact, there were plenty bracing themselves for the mother and father of all hidings – but Scotland rediscovered their long lost habit of producing contrary, delicious shocks.
Croatia had lost one competitive home game in their history, against England in 2008, and here a threadbare, maligned group of Scottish replacements and deputies found a goal against them and defended as though their lives depended on it. More importantly they soaked up the pressure in relative comfort. Robert Snodgrass's 26th-minute goal remained unanswered, ending a run of four competitive defeats and seven in total without a win. Shaun Maloney and Alan Hutton were excellent, while Grant Hanley and Russell Martin – an untried central defensive pairing with only 10 caps between them – dealt with Bayern Munich's Mario Mandzukic. It was a quietly effective display which delivered a result to scramble the senses.
Frankly it was a night, and a twist in this hitherto wretched Group A campaign, that made very little sense. Here were battered and bruised Scotland, seemingly stripped of all morale, suddenly finding the purpose and belief which had been absent for all six previous qualifiers.
Strachan needed a result which would alter the perception of this beleaguered Scotland team but, just as badly, he needed them to deliver a performance to reassure and encourage him. He got one. There was a calm, unhurried look about their play as they took a foothold in the game and began to look comfortable. It helped that the expected immediate onslaught from the Croatians failed to materialise. There was no great tempo or urgency about the hosts, which allowed Scotland to settle into the evening and play with far crisper purpose and accuracy than has been the case in so many of their recent dreadful performances.
James Morrison and James McArthur were a hard-grafting partnership in front of the back four. Snodgrass, Maloney and Barry Bannon were ahead of them, although Snodgrass and Bannon were charged with getting back behind the ball as soon as the Croats began to attack. It is not the tactics that have been the main problem for much of the past couple of years, or course, but the players' pretty awful attempts at applying them. Here they worked tirelessly when Croatia had the ball, dealt with crosses and other surges into their own area, tackled well and – crucially – were much less wasteful than usual when they had it themselves. Strachan had not realised how well things would pan out when he kicked an ice bucket in frustration after Snodgrass failed to control the ball in the opening minutes.
The whole thing felt too good to be true. The winning goal was down to Maloney. Too often the Wigan Athletic forward has been quiet for Scotland, anonymous even, failing to deliver his often outstanding club form at international level. His quality isn't up for debate, though. and it was his darting run which forced a goal that startled the Maksimir crowd. His neat, nimble footwork took him deep into Croatian territory and, by the time Darijo Srna came across to make a challenge, Scotland were within scoring distance. They got a bit of luck as the ball broke square into the middle of the box but Snodgrass's anticipation was sharp enough for him to be suddenly in front of goal and stretch to poke a finish past Stipe Pletikosa. He gave the goalkeeper a sore one in the face in the process, not that the disbelieving Scotland support paid much attention to that.
It was into the second half before Croatia began to properly impose themselves. Sammir should have done better with the goal open to him – he shot over the bar from the edge of the box – and Martin did well to hack a Srna cross out of the goalmouth just before half-time. Allan McGregor wasn't worked as much as he would have expected, though he had plenty to say when Mandzukic decked him before a corner. McGregor claimed the Croat had used an elbow, although the officials were unmoved. Soon enough it was McGregor himself who was disciplined, shown a yellow card for timewasting which means he will be suspended when Belgium come to Hampden in September.
Predictably Croatia turned the screw after half-time and Scotland began to look embedded in their own half, just as coach Igor Stimac had predicted they would be. Ivan Rakitic sent a header wide, Ivica Olic left Morrison for dead only to shoot wide, then Olic threatened a couple more times. But Scotland held their nerve, and Croatia were not at their best.
Leigh Griffiths had a frustrating night on his own up front and the ball did not stick to him, yet his work-rate and attitude were exemplary. Jordan Rhodes and Steven Naismith came on for him and Bannan just after an hour. They, too, played their part in the most memorable result since beating France in Paris in 2007. This group had flirted with the shame of being the first Scotland team ever to go through an entire campaign without a win. Not any more. It turns out Craig Levein, the man who said each individual fixture was winnable, was right after all.
Taken from the Herald