JUST as it was when Scotland last seriously threatened to qualify for a major tournament finals, Tbilisi proved to be the scene of a dispiriting defeat which has seriously jeopardised their prospects of automatic qualification for next year’s European Championship in France.
Gordon Strachan’s team produced one of the most insipid performances of his tenure against a Georgian side who earned their first home victory in a competitive fixture for three years.
Valeri Kazaishvili’s first-half goal separated the sides and Scotland could have no complaints about the outcome. It remains to be seen if the result will prove as damaging as the 2-0 loss back in 2007 which scuppered Scotland’s Euro 2008 hopes. Claiming a top-two finish in Group D is now far less likely, however, and Strachan’s men will have to improve significantly in their remaining three fixtures even to take third place and go into the play-offs.
To compound the Scotland team’s misery their flight home was delayed and they were left kicking their heels in Tbilisi airport long after midnight.
Despite kicking off at 8pm local time, the conditions remained highly challenging for the Scots with a temperature of 32 degrees and high humidity in a stadium which was a long way from full to its 54,500 capacity.
Georgian interest in their team has understandably been impacted by what has been a dismal campaign but those who did attend saw a performance which backed up the view, expressed by Strachan and others, they are improving under new coach Kakhaber Tskhadadze.
Some of the Georgian fans produced a banner displaying the 2-0 scoreline and goalscorers from the defeat of Scotland in the only previous meeting between the nations in Tbilisi eight years ago. There were very soon worrying signs on the pitch from a Scottish perspective that a similar fate could befall them this time around. It was a sluggish start by the visitors, who struggled to find the kind of tempo and rhythm which has been the key to their best work under Strachan’s guidance.
He had chosen a starting line-up few would have any issues with and it was clearly one intended to bring a positive approach to proceedings. But Scotland were not sharp enough in possession to bring their attacking players into the game often enough.
There was an early scare when Charlie Mulgrew, partnering Russell Martin in central defence, gave the ball away in the third minute to Kazaishvili, who raced clear but wasted the opportunity, sending a weak shot wide of the target when he had two team-mates in support on the edge of the penalty area. Both of Scotland’s full-backs, Alan Hutton and Andrew Robertson, attempted to surge forward at every opportunity and provided what rare moments of encouragement there were for the travelling fans in the first half.
A teasing cross from the left by Robertson saw Steven Naismith unable to outmuscle Giorgi Novalovsky as they contested it, then Steven Fletcher was penalised for a foul on goalkeeper Nukri Revishvili when he attempted to get on the end of a Hutton centre from the other flank.
The warning signs of vulnerability at the other of the pitch for Scotland continued when Levan Mchedlidze, one of the Georgian scorers in that 2007 setback, was allowed to push forward largely unchallenged before shooting wide from around 20 yards.
Naismith led the response for Scotland, driving into the box on the left but electing to try and cut the ball back for Fletcher instead of taking on a shot himself. It proved the wrong option as Aleksandre Amisulashvili got across to cut out the danger. A low cross from Robertson caught out the Georgian defence in the 27th minute but the stretching figure of Fletcher was agonisingly unable to turn the ball home from close range.
That was the last time Scotland carried any threat in the first half and it came as little surprise when Georgia, growing in confidence and securing more sustained spells of possession, made their breakthrough seven minutes before the interval. Mchedlidze won the ball ahead of Mulgrew on the edge of the penalty area and knocked it into the path of Kazaishvili. He got past a Scott Brown challenge all too easily, showing neat footwork before drilling a low, left-foot shot beyond David Marshall.
It could have been even worse for the Scots before the break, the lively Tornike Okriashvili bursting into the penalty area but taking too long to try and get a shot away which allowed Martin time to smother. Marshall had to make a smart save at the start of the second half, keeping out Mchedlidze’s near-post flick from a Jano Ananidze corner as Georgia looked to maintain the momentum they had built up.
Scotland briefly believed they had equalised in the 51st minute when Naismith tried to force a Shaun Maloney corner home from almost on the line but his celebrations were halted when Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan ruled he had fouled Revishvili.
Fletcher, who was toiling to make an impression up front for the Scots, looked to have wasted a premium chance when he latched on to Maloney’s pass to shoot against Revishvili’s post but he was flagged offside.
Strachan made a double substitution just before the hour, Grant Hanley and James Forrest replacing Robertson and Naismith in the search for a game-turning moment. But it was Georgia who almost doubled their lead in the 68th minute when Mchedlidze broke free again and saw his powerful shot well saved by Marshall.
Leigh Griffiths went on for the ineffective Ikechi Anya in Strachan’s final throw of the dice but, despite some late pressure when Hanley headed wide from close range in stoppage time, they could not source a leveller.
Attention now turns to Monday night’s showdown with Germany at Hampden with the pressure on Scotland to get a positive result against the world champions having been cranked up several notches.
Georgia: Revishvili, Lobzhanidze, Kverkvelia, Amisulashvili, Navalovsky; Kashia; Okriashvili (Merebashvili 71), Ananidze (Daushvili 82), Kankava, Kazaishvili; Mchedlidze. Subs not used: Loria, Makaridze, Khizanishvili, Popkhadze, Gvelesiani, Kakabadze, Kvekverskiri, Kenia, Vatsadze, Tskhadadze.
Scotland: Marshall, Hutton, R Martin, Mulgrew, Robertson (Hanley 59); Brown, Morrison; Maloney, Naismith (Forrest 59), Anya (Griffiths 75); S Fletcher. Subs not used: Gordon, McGregor, Whittaker, Greer, Ritchie, McArthur, D Fletcher, Russell, C Martin.