There was a sense of what might have been hanging in the air at Hampden Park as pungent as the smoke from a firecracker smuggled into the stadium by a Croatian fan as Scotland picked up a third competitive victory in six matches under manager Gordon Strachan.
Scorers: Scotland - Snodgrass (28), Naismith (73)
Referee: O Hategan (Romania)
This was the second win of the campaign picked up against Croatia, the side still ranked in the Fifa top ten and who were beaten 1-0 by Scotland in June. Robert Snodgrass, who scored the winner in Zagreb that night, set Scotland on the way again here with a first half header. It made it a memorable few days for the player who left the Scotland squad last week to attend the birth of his new daughter, Leonie. Steven Naismith capped an excellent performance from Scotland with a second goal after 73 minutes, after he followed up a Barry Bannan penalty that had been saved. The victory takes Scotland into fourth place in Group A. While qualification for Brazil 2014 is a long forgotten dream it was gladdening for the home fans to have the chance to cheer each touch from a Scotland player at the end of a sometimes traumatic campaign.
To paraphrase one famous quote, it is not the end and it is not the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Now Strachan can utilise the experience he now has as an international manager and concentrate on preparing for a fresh campaign next Autumn, one that is unencumbered by unhelpful results posted under a previous regime.
Doubts about Ikechi Anya’s participation had circulated prior to the match but his presence in the starting line-up was a fillip for the home supporters, who have taken the player to their hearts. By the time he was replaced after 77 minutes he had earned another ovation from the supporters after winning the penalty from which Scotland sealed victory. While Scotland’s pre-match ambitions did not amount to much more than rising from fifth place to fourth, other results permitting, there was an understandable eagerness to secure a first Hampden victory of the campaign. It was a challenge gladly accepted by the players, who took the game to Croatia after a cagey opening spell.
Indeed, the home team’s liveliness only served to deepen the frustration at the way this campaign has ended – or rather started. Scotland’s hopes of progressing were all but extinguished by two home draws against Serbia and Macedonia at the outset. Three victories from their final four qualifying matches is a record which speaks volumes for the impact Strachan has had.
The result of Strachan sleeping on what he called his “dilemma” of playing either Anya or Chris Burke was that the former lined up on the left side of midfield. Perhaps surprisingly, Bannan came into the team on the right side, with Snodgrass deployed to play just off Naismith. Alan Hutton continued his remarkable season where his playing statistics now read: international appearances 4, club appearances 0.
While Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric, who started the game for the visitors, exuded class, it was Scotland who looked the most purposeful side on the break.Although physically dwarfed by their opponents, they were retaining possession well, as has been the case under Strachan. The only surprise when Scotland eventually took the lead in the 27th minute after a move down the left was that Anya did not have a part to play in it. Instead, Mulgrew played a one-two with Naismith and then lifted a cross into the box that had to be attacked by a Scotland player. Fortunately, Snodgrass was there to do this and supply the finish. He showed more willingness to reach the ball than Dejan Lovren, the Croatian centre-back, and planted a header down into the net.
Snodgrass was almost contractually obliged to celebrate by sticking his thumb in his mouth in tribute to his new baby daughter. Just as Leonie’s birth was perfectly timed so too was Snodgrass’ arrival at the back post. The opening goal came just two minutes later in the game than the one he struck in the game between these two sides in Zagreb. No wonder Strachan had seemed so delighted to welcome him back into the fold after granting him permission to leave the squad last week.
Snodgrass was so close to adding a second goal just three minutes later after being played in by courtesy of a clever ball by Brown. The Norwich City player steadied himself and then struck a left shot that Stipe Pletikosa did well to tip onto the post.
Scotland, too, breathed more easily when an off balance Mandzukic failed to execute a scissor kick five minute before half time, with the ball bouncing harmlessly over the bar. It meant their lead was preserved until the interval, when Croatia were bound to take the opportunity to re-group.
Still, it was Scotland who might have extended their lead on the hour mark after James Morrison mis-kicked when presented with a volley opportunity in front of goal. Croatia should have equalised five minutes later, however, after a defence-splitting pass found Eduardo, who had only been on the pitch for six minutes after replacing Nikola Kalinic.
The former Arsenal player took the ball round Allan McGregor but then could only steer the ball into the side netting.
After 72 minutes, Scotland found the comfort they desired, and it was Anya, such a revelation in these last three internationals, who earned the penalty that was eventually converted by Naismith, after Bannan’s effort from the spot was brilliantly saved by Pletikosa.
The Watford winger was felled by a clumsy challenge from Domagoj Vida, and Bannan’s spot-kick, while forcefully struck, was saved by the ‘keeper, who was within his rights to be furious with those defenders who allowed Naismith to react first and sweep the ball into the net.
Scotland: McGregor, Hutton, Martin, Hanley, Mulgrew, Morrison, Bannan (Burke 89), Brown, Anya (Dorrans 77), Snodgrass (McArthur 82), Naismith.
Croatia: Pletikosa, Vida, Corluka, Lovren, Strinic, Kranjcar (Perisic 68), Vukojevic, Modric, Srna, Kalinic (Eduardo 59), Mandzukic (Jelavic 80).