Scotland 1-0 Slovakia: Seven games unbeaten - terrible match but we are finding way to prosper in unusual era
Scotland maintained their place at the top of their Nations League group in these remarkable times under Steve Clarke. While rarely excelling, Scotland have put together an unbeaten run of seven games. It is now over a year since the national side last lost.
A Covid-19 related hiatus must be taken into account. There are also some enduring issues such as lack of creativity. However, a win is a win. Momentum is everything ahead of next month’s play-off final against Serbia, although one blow was the suspension picked up by skipper Andy Robertson, who misses Wednesday's clash with Czech Republic after a second half booking for kicking the ball away.
It is just as well Lyndon Dykes is slowly emerging as a saviour for Scotland. It’s also just as well Clarke, despite pulling auxiliary right wingback Paul McGinn into the squad, retained faith in Stephen O’Donnell, whose performance against Israel was met with mixed reviews.
The Motherwell player is not everyone’s idea of an international footballer. His CV begs to differ. Last night was his 13th international cap and he played a crucial and not to say skilful part in Scotland’s opener, artfully clipping the ball into the goalmouth where Dykes, like good strikers do, had managed to find space between the Slovakia centre-backs. He finished expertly. It was similar to his strike against Czech Republic, in his second appearance last month.
Dykes answers calls for Griffiths
The Queens Park Rangers striker could yet mean Clarke will find it possible to resist the growing clamour for Leigh Griffiths to be given a recall to the squad ahead of next month’s play-off final against Serbia.
Two goals in four outings since his debut against Israel last month is more than satisfactory, particularly when playing for a side even Clarke acknowledges struggle to make opportunities. This was true again last night. Dykes’ winner nine minutes after half-time was Scotland’s first effort on target. Indeed, including the 120 minutes against Israel, it was the first shot to trouble the opposition ‘keeper for nearly three hours.
Dykes more than earned the splattering of applause he received from Scotland staff when he was replaced after 72 minutes by Oli McBurnie, whose international career is very much in contrast to Dykes. He remains goalless after 11 caps but after smacking a header off the post in the Azteca stadium against Mexico two summers ago, he saw another headed effort hit the bar last night after Ryan Fraser’s cross. A breakthrough goal is surely coming.
After the Lord Mayor’s show
It was a strange, subdued atmosphere over and above the obvious absence of supporters, now becoming a regrettably familiar feature. The exertions and emotional fall out from Thursday night clearly lingered, despite the four changes in the hosts’ line-up. There was also the matter of the absent Israel substitutes’ bench, who had given their side such stout support from the sidelines in the play-off semi-final. The Slovakians were a much less demonstrative bunch.
While still an important fixture, it clearly lacked the edge of the game four nights earlier. Scotland’s early play seemed to reflect this. Prior to Dykes’ intervention, Declan Gallagher had proved Scotland’s most dangerous player in attack, which says it all really. A header from the Motherwell centre-back squirmed past the post at the end of the first half following Ryan Fraser’s corner. Gallagher also got on the end of an Andy Robertson free-kick at the start of the second half. His header landed on the roof of the net.
Scotland were, at least, getting closer. Jakob Holubek cleared off the line after nine minutes following a corner. Andrew Considine was in very close attendance and had the ball landed more kindly for him, and had the referee not given a free kick for a non-existent foul on ‘keeper Dusan Kuciak, this might have been an especially notable moment for Scotland.
Considine’s call finally came
Yet another regret of the Covid-19 age when it comes to Scottish football concerned Considine, whose debut at the age of 33 and a half took place in an empty stadium. No family, no friends and no Tartan Army members witnessed a moment that some might contend is long overdue.
Of course, injury and illness provided the opportunity on this occasion. Nevertheless, his consistent performances in recent years – Clarke rated his displays as at least seven out of ten in the games he saw him play while manager at Kilmarnock – meant the call up was merited on its own terms.
It at least meant he has become the answer to a future pub quiz question: who is the oldest player to have made his Scotland debut after 1967, when Ronnie Simpson was picked to play in goal v England at the age of 37.
Considine took his place on the left of a three-man defence in place of the injured Liam Cooper.
‘In truth, another terrible match’
Sometimes managers can alight on the right blend by accident. It did not seem the case here. Clarke made four changes to the team that held their nerve against Israel. As well as Considine, the only player winning his first cap, Ryan Fraser, John Fleck and Kenny McLean, the penalty hero from Thursday, came into the team. Little changed initially.
There was the same absence of dynamism, even given Fraser’s inclusion. It was hoped the Newcastle United winger might the lack of creativity that Clarke’s acknowledged was the problem against Israel.
He was full of endeavour and did on occasion manage to deliver telling crosses – from one of them O’Donnell pulled a shot just wide – but he struggled to evade the often-illegal methods of limiting his effectiveness the visitors deployed.
It was, in truth, another terrible match. Every bit as poor as the one against Israel. It did not even have the play-to-the-death element to commend it. International football is struggling to adapt to this new schedule of three games inside seven days inside empty stadiums. Somehow, Scotland are finding ways to prosper in this unusual era.
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