JUST over two decades ago Scotland were good enough to earn a place in a European Championships comprised of only eight teams.
In the wake of Friday night’s torment in Tbilisi, that seems remarkable. There is a very real possibility that Gordon Strachan’s men won’t even be good enough to qualify for an expanded tournament that now accommodates the continent’s top 24 nations. It is an indication of how far other countries have advanced and how stagnant Scottish progress has been.
Scotland’s earlier displays against Germany and Poland are encouraging
There is, of course, still hope. But it is when hope is extinguished that the deepest wounds are inflicted and having tripped themselves up in Georgia, Scotland have left themselves with the unenviable task of having to take something from Hampden meetings with world champions Germany tomorrow night and the final two games against early pacesetters Poland and then away to Gibraltar.
Missing out on Euro 2008, it was Georgia who dealt the fatal blow. The only chance to make amends then was against reigning world champions Italy. There is a bit more leeway this time but not much and the fear is that history is repeating itself, an outcome that would be all the more unpalatable given the fact the Tartan Army could be left home alone, watering the plants and feeding the cat as the rest of the UK, and possibly the Republic of Ireland, head off to France for the football jamboree.
On the day Martin O’Neill’s men leapfrogged Scotland in Group D – relegating them to fourth place, the place dreams go to die and near misses are replayed in technicolour until time or therapy dulls the pain – the other home nations’ quests for automatic qualification were bolstered.
Only two days ago we were contemplating the prospect of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland all making it to a major finals for the first time since 1958. The Welsh did what they needed to keep that idea alive, travelling to Nicosia to beat Cyprus. Standing on the brink of booking their place, victory over Israel would rubber-stamp it. It would be Wales’ first involvement in either the Euros or World Cup in almost six decades. With England breezing through their qualifying group, Northern Ireland also upheld their end of things. The last time they partook of a major finals was in 1986, when they travelled to Mexico for the World Cup, and Michael O’Neill appears on course to guide them to a top-class summer championships for the first time in 30 years.
Scotland’s drought has been shorter but the thirst for success is still acute. France were the hosts the last time the country were invited to the top table, opening proceedings against World Cup holders Brazil in 1998. It seemed fitting that a return to the elite, albeit a diluted version thanks to the increased guest list, would be at the same venue. But the script is rarely that straightforward. Not when it involves Scotland, not when there are minnows to spoil things.
For all Georgian striker Valeri Qazaishvili can argue he has greater potential and a better pedigree than his counterparts in the dark blue, the 22-year-old’s winner was still an embarrassment for Scotland. There would be no such shame in losing to Germany but there would be dejection, especially if, as expected, the Republic of Ireland and Poland take advantage of the opportunity to extend their lead over Strachan’s troops. That scenario would render automatic qualification an impossibility, leaving Poland six points ahead with only two games remaining. The Irish would be four points clear.
The only encouraging thing for the Tartan Army is the manner of Scotland’s earlier performances against Germany and Poland. They reaped only one point from the two games away from home but produced arguably two of the best performances of their campaign.
Germany have stepped it up a few gears since those early fixtures, rediscovering the flow and the form that afforded them the honour of hoisting aloft the Jules Rimet trophy in Brazil and while they will be without Marco Reus, the strength and depth in the middle of the park remains daunting. Up front they are athletic and deadly, which doesn’t bode well when most Scotland fans accept that the defence is a disappointing chink in the tartan armoury. The same could be argued of the Germans but everything is relative and the crucial difference is whether a frontline which could not muster a solitary shot on target against a team ranked 147th in the world have it within them to capitalise and find a clinical finish against Joachim Löw’s World Cup winners.
Early in Strachan’s reign, there was intensity and passion to match the more free-flowing football and the bold willingness to take the game to opponents but there have also been periods of insipidness during the campaign. At times they have been fleeting, in other games they have been masked by a more positive period when points and plaudits were earned, but they have been there and they served as a warning of what transpired in Tbilisi.
Yet, at Hampden there were banners adorning the stadium depicting the faces of the current manager and his players contorted in jubilation and celebration, the picture of pride and passion. Those qualities need to be just as evident inside the stadium tomorrow. If they are, then the dream may not be dead. Not yet anyway.