Slovakia has now been firmly struck off the list of places where Gordon Strachan might consider celebrating his 60th birthday in February. Whether he is still in charge of Scotland then remains to be seen.
It is a question that now needs to be posed.
While this didn’t go quite as badly as his last visit as manager, for a 5-0 Champions League qualifier disaster against Artmedia Bratislava, this left a whole country disconsolate as well as somewhat embarrassed, not just Celtic fans. Scotland were shoulder-charged out of contention by Slovakia and quite possibly shoved into World Cup oblivion.
As often seems the case, the deflation was accompanied by a sense of injustice. This is a partially valid claim. But, while the goal that sparked this near rout was definitely contentious after Jan Durica’s barge into Steven Fletcher, there was little mitigation for the subsequent collapse. Scotland conceded two further goals after Robert Mak’s opener and could have lost by more.
The same player added a second goal ten minutes after half-time and Scotland’s fate, perhaps Strachan’s too, was sealed when a terrible third goal by Adam Nemec was conceded from a corner.
The empty seats in the Stadion Antona Malatinskeho were an indication many Slovakians had already written the campaign off. More fool them. It’s Scotland who now face an uphill battle. Their next assignment is only a date with England at Wembley.
Scotland had arrived in Slovakia to re-ignite their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup. There were the usual rowdy throng of Tartan Army members but few locals were seemingly enticed by the prospect of watching a side without a goal since their second outing at Euro 2016.
That amounted to over 400 minutes of football. As far as Scotland were concerned, this felt ominous. It took Slovakia only 17 minutes to end this drought. But it was a goal that stemmed from a baffling decision by Swedish referee
Martin Strombergsson. There were shades of a rainy night at Hampden Park nine years ago, when Spanish referee Manuel Gonzalez awarded a foul to Italy in the dying minutes of a vital Euro 2008 qualifier. Nearly everyone inside the stadium expected the award to go the other way. Inevitably Italy scored a winner from the free-kick.
The barge by Jan Durica that sent Steven Fletcher into next week seemed even more blatant. But Strombergsson waved play on. The ball at that moment was just outside the Slovakian box. The failings thereafter were Scotland’s alone.
Slovakia moved forwards with intent, Jakub Holubek swinging in a dangerous cross to the far post where Marek Hamsik had been left with too much space. His header was palmed out by David Marshall but only as far as Mak, whose finish into the roof of the net was emphatic.
It had to be a Mak who emerged as the player to spear Scotland.
The visitors attempted to strike back shortly afterwards and Robert Snodgrass’ shot, saved at the near post by Kozacik, was as close as they came to scoring in a first half where Slovakia finished the stronger side. A curling shot from Mak brought out the best in Marshall.
Strachan refrained from making changes at half-time but there was no getting away from it, Scotland had 45 minutes to salvage a campaign that was beginning to stutter very badly indeed.
An explanation for the omission of Oliver Burke will be left for another time but complaints about the manager’s methods were already being heard prior to kick-off last night. Many were voiced in the aftermath of Saturday’s 1-1 draw to Lithuania. That result had already put the pressure on Scotland – and Strachan.
Kieran Tierney, one of three changes made by Strachan, was excellent, perhaps the only Scotland player deserving of an above average mark. Steven Fletcher replaced Chris Martin, who the Scotland manager had described as “outstanding” on Saturday night, and found the going hard up front alone. James McArthur, in for Burke, was industrious.
But the meek way in which Scotland allowed Slovakia to cut through them again ten minutes into the second-half was utterly dismaying. Slovakia might play in all white but they are not Real Madrid. However, Scotland made it look as though they were playing the Spanish aristocrats when Holubek again made it to the bye-line before cutting back for Mak. He stepped inside defender Russell Martin with embarrassing ease before finishing past Marshall from six yards. Mak then turned provider from a corner as Slovakia secured the points with a header from the unmarked Nemec, who was immediately substituted.
One of Scotland’s own substitutes, Leigh Griffiths, provided more menace in 30 or so minutes than his team-mates had managed in the preceding 60. This detail won’t make Strachan’s job any easier as he attempts to explain how
Scotland have been knocked so badly off course in their quest to reach Russia.