For all Gordon Strachan’s talk this past week of the scared football played by – and in – Scotland, it was always more a case of being scared for Scotland’s footballers ahead of last night. A mauling in Metz as France flexed their muscles for a final time before hosting a Euro 2016 they are favourites for wasn’t just possible, it was probable. You didn’t have to be afraid for Scotland then, you had to be very afraid.
The sorry slaying that inevitably unfolded was the heaviest reverse of Gordon Strachan’s three-year tenure as Scotland manager, even on a night when France did all their damage inside 39 minutes. It will deepen the sense of despair over where his team is headed in the World Cup qualifying campaign… and where he is taking them. The inability even simply to create chances is the gravest concern of all, with Scotland not fashioning even a solitary effort on target last night – just as was the case in the first of the desperately ill-judged double-headers when they got away with a 1-0 loss to Italy in Malta last Sunday.
There could be any number of other eviscerations in the post-mortems that will follow these friendly failings. Gordon Greer and Grant Hanley were the softest centre as Olivier Giroud helped himself to a double. The hosts didn’t require to be sharp and slick. Indeed, in the first period, some slack passing from the French did provide Scotland breathers. The opportunity to get some air into their lungs and break forward with the ball, no less. Alas, on the couple of occasions Shaun Maloney was afforded such opportunity he slipped on the greasy surface as if shod in slippers.
Then there were the moments in that opening period when Robert Snodgrass and Darren Fletcher seemed to knock the ball straight to opponents when appearing under no pressure. Strachan’s comments about Scotland being a nation of unlucky passers, about uncertainly releasing the ball through lacking the poise and belief to take it past opponents and make something happen, all came to mind.
Yet, good teams can always make ordinary ones appear utterly inept and France and Italy are good sides, whatever the flaws of the latter. While Strachan may be criticised for not getting much right in this past week, his unwillingness to throw in young players – Scottish Championship players in the form of Hibernian’s John McGinn and Rangers’ Barrie McKay, who appeared for his debut eight minutes from the end – was entirely justified. Equally, it is entirely justifiable to say that Strachan is not responsible for the mediocre level of player that is available to him.
Ultimately, the whole occasion last night felt like turning up to party to which you weren’t invited for Scotland – which, with the fixture used to segue the nation into the Euro 2016 festival spirit, was fitting. The sylvan surroundings of Stade Saint-Symphorien were throbbing more than two hours before kick-off with folk stuffing their faces. The French fans had come to eat, drink… and then be merry at Scotland’s expense.
Yet, the riot of colour that enveloped the sold-out 26,000-capacity arena in the half hour leading up to kick-off wasn’t all down to the joie de vivre of an in-the-mood support. A French tricolour had been helpfully left on every seat. These were duly waved with abandon at every opportunity, especially after a tarpaulin sheet the length of the field was unfurled to reveal the legend “Tous fiers d’etre Bleus” – all proud to be Blues. There was an unmistakable sense of a country seeking to reassert a social cohesion desperately undermined by terrorist atrocities. Indeed, there was heavy symbolism in the appearance on the centre-circle of Aime Jacquet seconds before kick-off. The manager last time France won a tournament they hosted, that World Cup triumph of 1998, was supposed to demonstrate a country emboldened by its multiculturalism. Under Didier Deschamps, France’s football followers are at one with the flair and finesse he has accented. Not much of this was required to skewer Scotland.
Shortly after David Marshall had made a brilliant one-handed stop, he was powerless to prevent Giroud opening the scoring eight minutes in with an exquisite back-heel at the near post after Bacary Sagna had squared from the right flank with Andrew Robertson badly exposed.
As Scotland seemed to settle around the half hour mark they were then hit by a double dunt. First up, Giroud accepted a simple opportunity to bag a second after Marshall palmed out a vicious drive from the boot of Dimitri Payet. This 35th-minute goal was followed four minutes later by the other Arsenal man getting in on the act, with Laurent Koscielny, from a long way out, getting his head on an outswinging corner from Payet and sending it spinning towards the far corner. Scotland never stopped spinning thereafter, but amazingly avoided further punishment. By then they had suffered enough, mind you.
france: Lloris; Sagna, Koscielny, Rami, Evra (Digna 83); Pogba, Matuidi (Cabaye 69), Kante, Matuidi; Payet (Martial 46), Giroud (Gignac 63), Coman (Griezmann 46).
scotland: Marshall; Martin, Greer, Hanley, Robertson (Mulgrew 46); D Fletcher, McArthur (McKay 83); Snodgrass (Kingsley 66), Maloney (Anya 46), Ritchie; S Fletcher (Naismith 57).
REFEREE: Sebastien Delfreriere (Belgium)