Alan Pattullo: Scotland can blame it on the boogie after narrow defeat against Slovakia - but is it a chance missed?
In the battle between two hungover teams, Slovakia proved the masters in the art of recovery.
They were the ones who had remembered to put a glass of water – and a couple of Alka-Seltzers – by the bed a few days earlier in the aftermath of Euro 2020 qualification glory.
Scotland could at least blame it on the boogie. There is no need for tears, nor is there any appetite for recriminations. As manager Steve Clarke said later, it felt very different after Scotland’s 4-0 drubbing in Moscow 13 months ago, the last time his side tasted defeat.
The players – along with all Scots – are emotionally wrung out following the drama of Thursday night, when Scotland secured their place at next summer’s party with an epic shoot-out victory over Serbia. Of course, Slovakia did likewise against Northern Ireland. But then, having experienced a World Cup as recently as 2018, their joy was presumably not as profound.
Indeed, it's impossible to write a report on Scotland’s latest outing without placing it in this context. The triumph in Belgrade has given Scottish football fans a new outlook on life.
Not the best prep …
“The party went on till the early hours, as expected, and it’s a quick turnaround so it probably wasn’t the best preparation,” acknowledged Ryan Christie afterwards in a far more standard post-match interview. It certainly won’t be going viral on this occasion. Much about this meeting at the City Arena felt and looked a bit washed out, including the white-shirted Scotland players. That said, the visitors were still the better team. Scotland still left the field wondering how on earth they had failed to gain a point at least.
Scotland were without skipper Andy Robertson and Scott McTominay, two of eight changes to the side that defeated Serbia. Kieran Tierney, who pushed up to left wing back, was Scotland’s man of the match and underlined his versatility as well as worth. "You don’t want to live off a couple of days ago forever," he said later in an expression of his competitive spirit.
Although this loss is not critical, it could affect Scotland's hopes of gaining a World Cup play-off place through the Nations League. Group winners with the best records have an increased chance.
Sign of progress
It is a measure of Scotland's new-found strength in depth that this much changed side should feel so frustrated after this latest trip to Trnava, where they fell to heavy defeat on their last visit under Gordon Strachan. Things are slightly different now compared to four years ago. The pressure is off to some extent. That night under Strachan, qualification for anything at all felt like a distant dream.
Nevertheless, there will be some irritation at seeing an impressive unbeaten record come to an end after nine games. Scotland had the chance to extend this run to ten matches for the first time since before the Wall Street Crash.
They simply lacked the cutting edge. Sadly for Oli McBurnie, many will seek to make a connection between this observation and the fact he started up front in place of the suspended Lyndon Dykes, who scored the winner against the same side at Hampden last month. Clarke gave McBurnie every opportunity to score his first regulation Scotland goal after such an impressive finish while under extreme pressure in the penalty shoot-out against Serbia.
The Sheffield United striker played the full 90 minutes. He was joined in attack in the later stages by Leigh Griffiths and Lawrence Shankland as Scotland went all out for an equaliser. It says everything about McBurnie's trials that Griffiths came a lot closer to scoring in the short spell he was on the pitch. His effort with what was the last kick of the game saw goalkeeper Marek Rodak pull off a tremendous save to his left with the ball seemingly destined to arrow into the corner of the net.
The goalkeeper, out of favour at Fulham, also kept out Kenny McLean’s header from a Tierney cross a with an acrobatic leap to his right. The history-making Craig Gordon could do little about Jan Gregus’ 20 yard first-half winner. It flicked off McLean leg on its way into the corner of the net.
A month after David Marshall claimed the title from fellow goalkeeper Ned Doig, Gordon has now created a new record for longest Scotland career. In his case, it’s now 16 year, six months, two weeks and six days since the Hearts ‘keeper made his debut in May 2004 against Trinidad and Tobago.
The hope is that McBurnie won’t have to wait so long to score his first goal. He now has 14 caps stretching back to March 2018. What he needed was the goalkeeper to fumble the ball at his feet when Griffiths’ long range effort tried to catch the ‘keeper out at his far post. Rodak, however, gathered well, with McBurnie on hand to feed off any scrape. The wait continues.
Bad touches let him down in the first half, the first after he had linked well with Christie but could not get the shot away and then again, shortly afterwards, after he was played in by Stuart Armstrong.
Needs a partner
Although ostensibly the same formation as against Serbia, Scotland sought to push players up front in a seeming bid to help McBurnie. His qualities do not extend to playing the lone striker’s role, certainly not to the same level as Dykes. Christie seemed the most willing to offer support. Indeed, he often found himself as Scotland’s farthest forward player. This remained the case until Griffiths came on after 68 minutes
McBurnie remains the great enigma. He did do some good things and put Griffiths in for a chance on goal with nine minutes left which the Celtic striker could not quite gather. There will be no better place to end his drought than in the promised land against Israel on Wednesday.
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