SCOTLAND used to specialise in finding new ways to lose games. For a tantalising 20-minute spell, they threatened to find a novel way of seizing what would have been an inspired victory.
From the time Steven Naismith slid in at the back post to put Gordon Strachan’s team 2-1 up, to Arkadiusz Milik’s equaliser, we were viewing the enticing prospect of an away win which would have been achieved despite a self-imposed handicap. That is the only term to apply to the concession of the opening goal, when a slack and distracted touch from Alan Hutton was swiftly punished by Krzysztof Maczynski.
It was a cruel blow for Hutton, who was arguably Scotland’s best performer in the win against Georgia three days earlier. And, unfortunately, it was not the only time that the Aston Villa right-back was exposed by the guile and speed of a home side who were on a high after their historic weekend win against world champions Germany.
Some commentators, among them Sky’s Neil McCann, had predicted that Scotland could win in Warsaw. But the most plausible route to the three points was surely for the team to keep it tight for as long as possible: to take the sting out of Poland and then strike late. No-one, surely, thought that Scotland would win after going a goal behind – and yet, for those 20 minutes in the second half, that outcome loomed increasingly large.
In the end, it failed to materialise, but such was the onslaught from Poland in the closing stages that, by full-time, the 2-2 draw felt more like a point gained than two points dropped. Certainly, while there are always regrets about not holding on to a lead, Scotland will be happier about the outcome than their hosts.
When you are playing the third round of fixtures in a sequence of ten, it is usual to display a degree of conservatism in the closing stages if the scores are level. Instead, Poland threw everything they had into chasing the victory, playing in the last ten minutes as if the match were a one-off cup-tie that had to have an outcome one way or the other on the night, rather than a group fixture in a fairly lengthy European Championship qualifying campaign.
This was only partly because their confidence was high after that win against the Germans. Primarily, though, it was a calculated risk: a win would have seen them open up a six-point gap on Scotland, and even with seven games still to play, that would have been a commanding lead.
With four teams chasing three potential qualifying places, defeat would have left Scotland looking very vulnerable to a knockout blow when they face Ireland at Celtic Park next month.
They are still three points behind the Republic thanks to the latter’s draw in Germany last night, but Group D is looking a lot tighter than it would have been if Poland had snatched the late winner they fought so hard for.
“This will be right to the wire, this one,” Strachan said about the group before the game. Nothing about last night’s matches would have changed his mind on that one.
Even if you accept that Poland were the better side – and the chances they created late on make it hard to argue otherwise – it is obvious that the national team continue to improve under the current manager. That improvement is evident not just in the self-belief they show going forward, but also the determination they show in the face of adversity. Such defiance may have been one of their defining characteristics down the decades, but we do not have to think back too far into the past to recall a time when it diminished almost to vanishing point; when a match such as last night’s would have seen the team succumb to a fatalistic feeling that gallantry in defeat was the most they could hope for.
Strachan only made one unforced change from the weekend, bringing in Steven Whittaker, normally a right-back, for left-back Andrew Robertson. Whittaker had his odd shaky moment, particularly one just before Hutton’s error that might have been similarly punished, but his greater experience arguably contributed more than Robertson would have done, for all that the Hull City player is destined for a long and distinguished career in a Scotland jersey.