THE road to Rio had already been as good as closed to Scotland but at Hampden they were shunted firmly into the sidings of international football as their utterly wretched 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign took another turn for the worse.
Scorers: Scotland: Grant Hanley (47); Wales: Aaron Ramsey (72pen), Hal Robson-Kanu (74)
On an unseasonably wintry night, this was a stark illustration of the size of the task facing Gordon Strachan if he is to transform the fortunes of the national team.
Unable to capitalise on Grant Hanley’s opening goal in stoppage time at the end of a first half when they had been outplayed by Wales for lengthy spells, Scotland were undone by a cheaply conceded penalty kick which saw Robert Snodgrass sent off. Aaron Ramsey converted from the spot before Hal Robson-Kanu grabbed the winner for Wales two minutes later to leave Scotland rooted to the bottom of Group A with no wins and just two points from their first five games.
It was a miserable first competitive match in charge for Strachan who must now try to raise the morale and confidence of his players ahead of Tuesday night’s assignment in Serbia.
As snowflakes swirled incessantly around the National Stadium, the match could barely have had a more bleakly discouraging start from Scotland’s perspective. Inside the first minute, Strachan’s men almost lost a goal. Within the first five minutes, they lost their leading striker.
Before Steven Fletcher was taken off on a stretcher, clearly in great discomfort after going over on his ankle after landing awkwardly following an aerial challenge with the blameless Ben Davies, there were already worrying signs for the home fans.
The central defensive pairing of Gary Caldwell and Grant Hanley, the latter making a first competitive appearance for Scotland that would prove memorable, appeared ill at ease as Wales were presented with a sight of goal after just 45 seconds. Fortunately for the Scots, Aaron Ramsey was unable to fully punish the confusion in their defence, the Arsenal midfielder’s shot blocked.
Fletcher’s abrupt departure was a significant early setback for Strachan, who would have been optimistic that the Sunderland man could have troubled the Welsh defence. He was replaced by Kenny Miller, but along with his team-mates the substitute would see little of the ball for the next 25 minutes or so.
Wales controlled territory and dominated possession with an ease that bordered on embarrassment for Scotland and certainly incurred the ire of the Tartan Army, who were not slow make their displeasure known.
Scotland’s efforts to get the ball quickly became desperate, Robert Snodgrass booked for a lunging foul on Chris Gunter just moments after he was fortunate to escape a caution for an arguably poorer challenge on Joe Ledley.
More hesitation in the Scottish defence, with Hanley allowing a through ball to bounce through to the unprepared Allan McGregor, let Gareth Bale in but the Welsh dangerman was unable to capitalise.
There was finally some respite for Scotland in the 22nd minute when Chris Burke burst free down the right and delivered a teasing cross towards the far post. Miller beat Gunter to get on the end of it but sent his header over from close range.
McGregor was called into action for the first time four minutes later, beating away a 20-yard shot from Bale, the ball moving wickedly in the air to test the reactions of the Besiktas goalkeeper.
But Scotland gradually broke free of the vice-like grip that Wales had exerted on proceedings, building up some momentum of their own that led to Hanley’s breakthrough goal in first-half stoppage time.
Before Hanley struck, Miller came close once again. Graham Dorrans sent Snodgrass scampering down the left and the Norwich City man whipped over a cross that Miller, stretching slightly, could only head over from inside the six yard box.
Burke then found space on the opposite flank, latching onto a neat lay-off from Miller, to drive the ball low across the face of the Welsh six-yard box. No Scottish player could connect, however, and Gunter was able to clear the danger for Wales.
It would be stretching a point to say Scotland deserved their lead when it arrived, but there had been signs it was coming. Hanley atoned for his less than convincing work at the other end of the pitch when he broke free of his marker Sam Ricketts and headed home Charlie Mulgrew’s well delivered corner from the right from close range.
The weather may have remained of the near Arctic variety, but Scotland’s prospects suddenly seemed much rosier. Bale’s failure to appear for the start of the second half, replaced by Jonathan Williams after sustaining an injury in a hefty challenge from Hanley just before the break, would be regarded as an added bonus by the home side.
There was greater purpose and fluidity about the Scots as they went in pursuit of a second goal. Dorrans was the first to threaten it, driving a shot narrowly over and a rapid burst from Burke had stretched the Welsh defence.
Scotland’s midfielders were now on the front foot more often, Maloney’s movement causing particular problems for Wales. A quickly taken free kick by Snodgrass sent the Wigan man free on the left side of the penalty area and his low cross was scrambled clear by Ricketts.
Snodgrass was unfortunate not to double Scotland’s lead in the 54th minute. His swerving left foot shot from just outside the penalty area had Boaz Myhill beaten, only for the ball to smack back off the Welsh goalkeeper’s left hand post.
Wales were significantly less menacing without Bale but could perhaps consider themselves to be harshly denied an equaliser just before the hour mark. Williams lofted a cross into the six-yard box and McGregor dropped the ball under pressure from Andy King who hooked it home from close range. French referee Antony Gautier ruled that McGregor had been fouled, which seemed generous to the goalkeeper.
But just as it had in Cardiff five months earlier, the tide turned against Scotland in the latter phase of the match. The Welsh leveller in the 72nd minute was a double calamity for the home side, Snodgrass earning his second yellow card for a rash late challenge on Gunter. The dismissal was compounded when the referee, having initially signalled for a free-kick just outside the box, correctly pointed to the penalty spot after consulting his assistant.
Ramsey stepped forward to blast the ball out of McGregor’s reach and in off the underside of the crossbar. The ten-man Scots barely had time to reorganise themselves before they found themselves 2-1 behind just two minutes later.
King had all the time and space he needed on the right to send over a cross, which Hal Robson-Kanu met with a firm header which beat the helpless McGregor from around eight yards.