IT has taken seven matches and a new manager to make a statement in Group A. This, however, was some way to make a late entrance. Scotland made their earlier struggles in this World Cup qualifying campaign seem all the more frustrating by defeating the fourth best team in the world.
Scorer: Snodgrass (26)
Referee: D Fernandez (Spain)
This result deserves to rank as one of Scotland’s greatest victories. In terms of more recent history, it is a supremely welcome first competitive win in eight matches.
Drenched as they were with sweat, Scotland’s dark blue jerseys were made to seem even darker at the end, following a victory that provides manager Gordon Strachan’s reign with lift-off. Scotland were bold and they were brave. The welcome news is that they are now spared the fate of slipping into pot five ahead of the next set of qualifiers. In truth, however, the greatest reward is the return of some self-respect. This was the Tartan Army’s repayment for bleak nights in Prague, in Novi Sad, and too many other places to mention.
The dark blue shorts that they were forced to wear because of Croatia’s white shorts gave Scotland a World Cup 1978 look, and this was a performance that had much more in common with the Netherlands experience than the Peru one. Robert Snodgrass’ first-half goal proved the difference between the sides. While there were, of course, some difficult moments thereafter, Scotland secured victory with a degree of comfort in the end.
It was far from the intimidating cauldron that many had expected. As against Serbia in March, Scotland could not use intimidation as an excuse for any failings, not that there were any of those. Although vociferous, the home supporters were positioned some way from the pitch, in stands that were wedged on concrete blocks some 40 yards above the playing area. They could barely believe what they were seeing. At the end, their disgust was registered by a shriek of whistles.
Despite recent heavy thunderstorms, the pitch looked in perfect condition as Scotland sought to do something that is so key to success at international level: keep the ball. Strachan had urged his side, two of whom were making competitive international debuts, to be brave and it was a comment made in reference to the willingness of the players to make themselves available for a pass.
Snodgrass was in constant dialogue with Strachan on the right touchline. The manager can not have been too unhappy with the way Scotland had started. On a humid evening, they knew it was dangerous to expend too much energy in the opening minutes. But they were keeping the ball well and finding men, which was a step forward from their last performance against Serbia, and certainly the Wales defeat at Hampden, with which Strachan had started his competitive reign.
REACTION AND ANALYSIS
When they didn’t have the ball, Scotland were quick to react to their men. It was a disciplined, promising opening to the match, but not even the most optimistic Scotland supporter could imagine what lay in store. The only drawback was an inability to bring Leigh Griffiths into the play. The striker looked slightly ill-at-ease initially. Next to the towering Croatian defender Josip Simunic, his physical shortcoming looked particularly pronounced.
It was impossible not to consider his progress in recent seasons. From unwanted Wolves player to Scotland No 9, the 22-year-old did what anyone would do given such a opportunity, he never stopped running. Surprisingly, when Scotland won their first free-kick in shooting range of the goal, neither Griffiths or Shaun Maloney, their other dead-ball specialist, were deployed to take it. Instead, Barry Bannan rolled the ball wide to James Morrison, who fired wildly over.
This was, though, preferable to being under siege, as had been feared. Indeed, the pressure had been minimal from Croatia. Russell Martin, who endured a shaky start before managing to steady himself, put Allan McGregor under pressure after giving the ball away, but the visitors survived. Indeed, they prospered.
Maloney was at the heart of the move that saw Scotland take such an unlikely lead after 26 minutes. He made a darting run down the middle of the pitch, and, after being sandwiched by two fretting Croatian defenders, the ball broke to Snodgrass, who lifted it over the goalkeeper, Stipe Pletikosa. Fortune had favoured the brave. Croatia were further hampered by the injury sustained by Pletikosa as he dived at Snodgrass’ feet. Although he continued, play had to be held up for several minutes.
In that time, Scotland were able to take some much-needed deep breaths, and re-group. Mark McGhee, the Scotland assistant manager, urged the players on from sidelines, as they passed the time by kicking the ball about between them. It was almost as if it had yet to sink in that they had scored. Around the stadium, this was certainly the case. The ground had been plunged into silence.
Ivan Rakitic saw a diving header fly past a post, while Grant Hanley’s poor backpass put McGregor under pressure again, and when Ivica Olic blocked the ’keeper’s attempted clearance, the ball broke to Jorge Sammir, who lifted his shot over the bar – much to the home crowd’s evident disgust. Croatia surged forward. The extra minutes added on after the injury to Pletikosa offered the home side an extended period in which to try to respond before half-time, but, while at times they swept forward in the manner of a calvary charge, Scotland held firm, with Martin forced to clear a Darijo Srna cross from his own goal-line. The one irritation was the booking that McGregor collected for time-wasting at a bye-kick. It means the goalkeeper is suspended for the next qualifying match, at home to Belgium.
The referee’s whistle offered inviting relief from this sudden change of pace from the home team, who realised there hopes of automatic qualification for Brazil 2014 could rest on their ability to overcome the one-goal deficit. Olic’s shot cleared McGregor’s bar as Croatia maintained this momentum in the second half. Igor Stimac was quick to change things, sending on Eduardo for Ivan Perisic before the hour mark. Just after 60 minutes, Strachan replaced the tireless Griffiths with Jordan Rhodes, and sent Steven Naismith on for Bannan.
Hanley and Martin were standing strong together at the back. They are an unlikely-centre half pairing. The result was built on their contribution. There is no question that the table-cloth patterned shirts of Croatia has become a symbol for over-achievement on the international stage. Here, however, they were brought to their knees – and several Croatia players slumped to the turf at the end – by a patchwork Scotland side that have succeeded in making things look a whole let brighter.
Croatia: Pletikosa, Strinic, Simunic, Schildenfeld, Srna, Rakitic, Kovacic, Perisic, Sammir, Mandzukic, Olic. Subs: Kresic, Milic, Ilicevic, Vukojevic, Jelavic, Nikola Kalinic, Badelj, Kranjcar, Halilovic, Vida, Eduardo, Subasic.
Scotland: McGregor, Hutton, Martin, Hanley, Whittaker, Maloney, Morrison, McArthur, Bannan, Snodgrass, Griffiths. Subs: Gilks, Conway, Naismith, Webster, Rhodes, Mackay-Steven, Hammell, Burke, Armstrong, Jack, Watt, Marshall.