After almost displaying their seniors’ penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Scotland’s under-21 team held on for a nervy win over Slovakia who had been top of Group 3 yesterday morning.
Scorers: Scotland U21 - Armstrong (31), May (36); Slovakia U21 - Malec (68)
The Netherlands’ crushing 6-0 win over Georgia in Tbilisi gives Scotland hope of a result in the former Soviet state on Monday and a real chance at qualifying in second place behind the rampant Dutch. If they do make it to the play-offs, the Scots will look back to some heroic late defence in this match in Paisley, and see this win as key.
The Tartan Platoon – the official attendance was allegedly 2,014, so that’s no army – saw the young Scots expend a lot of energy and no little skill as they forged a two-goal lead by half-time. But the Slovakians came back to almost snatch a draw. Scotland started brightly and inside the first five minutes Stevie May showed his threat in attack, the St Johnstone player setting up Callum McGregor for a shot which was on target but was comfortably held by goalkeeper Patrick Le Giang.
McGregor, a Celtic player currently on loan to Notts County, was making his debut at under-21 level, as was fellow Celt Stuart Findlay. Both did well on a night when there were no obvious failures in dark blue.
As the half wore on, both teams were testing each other out with the emphasis on neat passing football, though neither side could make inroads as both defences were well organised.
The first decent chance for the visitors fell to Jakub Paur after 16 minutes, a cut-back at the edge of the Scottish penalty area giving the midfielder the space to fire in a shot which Jordan Archer dealt with unfussily.
Both sides had their brief periods of possession and territory, but neither could create genuine chances until a third of the match was gone, and to the joy of the sparse home crowd, it was Scotland who made them and took them in excellent style.
Findlay sent Clark Robertson away down the left wing and the Aberdeen player’s low cross into the box was perfection, with Stuart Armstrong’s deft touch into the net equally excellent.
Five minutes later, Scotland doubled their lead. May had looked in the mood from the start, and when the ball found him inside the visitors’ box after 36 minutes, he cleverly made space for himself, jinking left before thrashing an unstoppable shot high past goalkeeper Le Giang.
Fraser Fyvie was the first player to be booked after 43 minutes, and the Wigan Athletic man was rather fortunate not to see red for a highly dangerous assault on the left shin of Paur who limped for some time afterwards. Just on half-time, May broke away and evaded defenders and goalkeeper alike but his momentum carried him wide and he was unable to find a colleague with his pass.
Slovakia seemed stung by the fact they were two down and came out bristling with intent at the start of the second half.
Manager Ivan Galad also made two important substitutions at the interval, sending on Jaroslav Mihalik and Thomas Malec for Ivan Schranz and Adam Zrefak. The new men made a big difference to the visitors, who went on to dominate the second period.
Archer was twice called into action early in the half, having to look lively to parry wide a Jakub Voijtus effort before clutching Paur’s shot.
Those saves came either side of an inexplicable miss by Fyvie, who was put clean through by Dylan McGeouch yet chose to run the ball wide to the by-line rather than shoot.
Jordan McGee became the second Scot to be booked, again for a rash tackle, this time on Vojtus. Paur and Branislav Ninaj were later booked for Slovakia.
Ten minutes into the half and Scotland came within inches of a third. McGeouch’s cross into the box was met by the inrushing May whose clever header landed on top of the bar with Le Giang beaten.
May was having a dream night all round, and on 65 minutes he sent a sublime pass through the Slovakian defence to put McGregor clear away on goal, Le Giang making an excellent one-handed stop.
Slovakia came right back into the game with a goal after 69 minutes. They had been pressurising the Scottish defence which had coped admirably, but substitutes Mihalik and Malec had looked dangerous even before the former’s pinpoint low cross gave the latter a tap-in.
Findlay had an immediate chance to restore Scotland’s two-goal lead, but his left-foot shot from distance was always heading wide of Le Giang’s left upright.
The visitors sensed they could get a result and laid siege to the Scottish penalty area. Yet time and again, the young Scots put their bodies in the way of shots while several last ditch tackles had the fans’ hearts in their mouths. Archer also did some adroit tidying up. It wasn’t pretty but it worked, and Scotland hung on for victory.
Scotland U21: Archer, Jack, McGhee, Findlay, C Robertson, Fyvie (A Robertson, 75), McGeouch, McGregor (Paterson, 88), Armstrong, MacLeod (Holt, 83), May. Subs not used: Kettings, Kerr, Herron, Beck.
Slovakia U21: Le Giang, Pauschek, Gyomber, Ninaj, Mazan, Lobotka, Paur, Schranz (Mihalik 46), Vojtus (Skvarka 69), Lalkovic, Zrefak (Malec, 46). Subs not used: Marosi, Pinter, Meszaros, Bukata.
Referee: D Batinic (Cro)