Slovenia 2 - 2 Scotland: Strachan’s men fall at final hurdle

Dejection for Scotland and James McArthur as they fail to secure the three points necessary. Picture: PA
Dejection for Scotland and James McArthur as they fail to secure the three points necessary. Picture: PA
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It was not to be. Scotland stumbled at the final hurdle having appeared to put one foot in the play-offs.

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The lights went out in Ljubljana. Scotland maintained their recent ability to conjure late goals but still fell just short. Winning a fourth consecutive World Cup qualifier for the first time ever in a single campaign proved beyond them, although this isn’t the major regret.

What is harder to stomach is failure to take the ample opportunity they had of securing a play-off place and perhaps ending their major finals exile after establishing a 1-0 lead, following Leigh Griffiths’ opener.

Two goals in the space of 20 second-half minutes from half-time substitute Roman Bezjak extinguished Scotland’s World Cup dream. Although they knew their own qualifying ambitions were hanging by a thread, Slovenia seemed the hungrier side in a ruinous second 45 minutes for Scotland.

As well as considering his own future, Strachan will spend time wondering why Scotland turned in such a poor half of football after producing an almost textbook away performance in the first 45 minutes, when they struck on the break and were solid in defence.

Robert Snodgrass’ 88 th minute equaliser provided some hope and meant Scotland were just another goal away from securing what they desperately wanted. Snodgrass nearly supplied it. However, his looping back header was clutched by the Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak in the dying moments.

It was a chaotic ending. Slovenia skipper Bostjan Cesar was red carded on his 100 th appearance after tangling with Christophe Berra. But Slovenia held out. Scotland dropped to third place in the group, supplanted by Slovakia on the slim margin of goal difference.

There was plenty evidence here why Slovenia were still in the qualifying mix at the end. The visitors spent the opening minutes admiring Slovenia’s possession. Darren Fletcher sought to get the ball moving when he could but it was a tough period, one underlining the tall order facing Scotland.

It was initially apparent why Slovenia were aiming to complete an entire qualifying campaign without conceding at home. The cheap way in which they finally did lose a goal at home after 390 minutes served to emphasise how impressive their record is. Even the best defences switch off.

Aljaz Struna was slow to react after a Scotland attack looked to have broken down, James McArthur lifting the ball back over a static defence. The unmarked Griffiths casually brought the ball down before rifling a left-footed, angled shot in off the far post after 32 minutes. It was Scotland goal No 4 for a striker now very much in clover after taking 13 internationals to break his duck.

His sense of occasion is certainly sharp. After scoring a double against England in June he struck in Scotland’s most important match in a decade. It was at the right end too. The Tartan Army bobbed up and down to acclaim the goal that provided Scotland with something to work with.

But these fans were painfully aware that a single slip or one moment of inspiration from Slovenia could undo Scotland. Strachan, who had already made a statement by playing two strikers, was now required to ensure his side got the balance right between searching for the second goal that would give his side some margin for error and keeping things tight at the back.

Strachan imparted this advice at half-time before sending Scotland out for the final 45 minutes of the campaign, a play-off now within touching distance. They were slow to appear, leaving Slovenia to stand around, kicking their heels. If only Scotland could have played a joker card and inform the referee they would take what they had.

Griffiths was causing a concern as he struggled to shake off an ankle injury sustained in the opening half. Strangely given what was at stake Scotland looked sluggish from the re-start.

It took only seven minutes for a reality check to hit Scotland. Fletcher was penalised for a foul on Josip Ilicic, who picked himself up to send a free-kick towards the back post. Unmarked half-time substitute Bezjak had the straightforward task of heading back across Craig Gordon into the far corner.

Scotland made an immediate change. Despite Griffiths looking to be the one carrying an injury, and despite needing to score again, Strachan chose to replace a striker, Chris Martin, with Ikechi Anya, who had been preparing to come on even before Bezjak’s deflating intervention.

The big clocks in two corners of the stadium were ticking ominously on. In contrast to their disciplined first half performance, Scotland were looking ragged. They looked the more likely of the teams to concede.

Bezjak’s introduction had helped change the game. Only a good one-handed save from Gordon prevented the substitute scoring again with a deflected effort.

But Bezjak didn’t have to wait too long for the goal that really provided Scotland with a serious problem, slamming home a loose ball after 72 minutes following the influential Ilicic’s corner. The message they were not going to Russia was rammed down the Tartan Army’s throats, who had the further indignity of seeing this goal scored under their noses.

Darren Fletcher did appear about to provide some hope but he managed to lift an effort over the bar from the edge of the six-yard box. He later supplied Snodgrass with his goal, the second half substitute turning to hook the ball past Oblak with two minutes left. But it was not enough. Scotland’s luck had run out.

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