Scotland 0 - 0 Serbia: Heat on Levein as forwards fail to match Scots’ sound defence
Almost a year to the day since another disappointing draw against slightly higher ranked opponents, Scotland once again left their supporters feeling frustrated.
Worse, perhaps, is that on this occasion the frustration was mixed with some very perceptible agitation. Jeers greeted the final whistle. Although manager Craig Levein applauded these dejected supporters, he must know that the heat is now very much on him.
As against Czech Republic 12 months ago, this underwhelming draw with Serbia means the second half of a home double-header has become laden with significance. Scotland must win against Macedonia tomorrow evening in order to maintain some semblance of hope that they can make an impression at the top end of Group A. For this to happen, they will need to show more ambition than they managed here, when a pre-match promise to get ‘torn into them’ drifted away on the breeze as Serbia spent long, dispiriting periods of the second half keeping the ball away from their hosts.
Levein later made a positive comparison with the game against Czech Republic last year, suggesting Scotland had created many more scoring opportunities against a side he rated as being of a similar standard to their opponents on the earlier occasion. Yet he was left desperately hoping that an off-form Charlie Adam could deliver the killer set-piece – “the little glimpse of quality,” as he described it – which might see Scotland profit late in the game.
Although clearly conscious that it could be perceived as a laughable excuse for his side’s shortcomings, Levein revealed that the pitch had been “sticky”. The water that had been sprayed onto the turf by the Hampden groundsmen had mostly evaporated by the time kick-off arrived. Whatever the reason, both the touch and distribution of several Scotland players left something to be desired. James Morrison, in whom so much faith is placed by his manager, was most obviously culpable.
One poor attempt to control the ball in the middle of the park led to a break that saw Scotland exposed down the right flank. There was relief that Gary Caldwell’s defensive instinct remained intact despite his new deployment further forward. The skipper slid in to snuff out the opportunity for Darko Lasovic.
Indeed, it was at the back where Scotland excelled, not further forward as Levein had assured would be the case. Paul Dixon fitted in as though born for international football. Hampden held its breath as he made a sliding challenge on Zoran Tosic just before the half-hour mark, and when a misjudgment could easily have resulted in a penalty being awarded by referee Jonas Eriksson.
Scotland had already relied on a combination of the Swede’s goodwill and sheer good fortune. Like most in the ground, the referee failed to spot an off-the-ball forearm smash by Steven Naismith on Srdan Mijailovic and then chose not to take action on Alan Hutton after a reckless two-footed challenged on Milos Ninkovic.
By the same token, Serbia centre-half Matija Nastasic was also living dangerously after a succession of fouls, having already been booked. The Manchester City defender has the excuse of being only 19 years old should the reasons for such impetuosity be examined. Four other of his team-mates were aged 21 or under and yet an experienced Scotland side seemed at times meek by comparison.
Three players were handed baubles just prior to kick-off to mark the reaching of significant cap totals. Hutton and Andy Webster have hit the 25 appearance total, and Caldwell is now on a half century of caps. Their contributions were among the more laudable performances on Saturday as defence proved to be Scotland’s most successful department.
Despite the intention that the likes of Adam and Morrison would be the home team’s creative outlets, it was Dixon and Caldwell whose final ball looked the likeliest source of hope.
Dixon whipped in some of his trademark crosses from the left, while Caldwell set up Scotland’s best chance, which fell to Naismith. The skipper slipped a neat ball through to the Everton forward whose attempt was sclaffed well wide after 66 minutes. Caldwell’s quick thinking at a free kick had already provided Robert Snodgrass with a glimpse of goal midway through the first half. His effort was blocked by goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic but the ball ran invitingly across the goal. The Norwich City player reacted angrily when none of his team-mates had anticipated this by making a run to the far post. Indeed, there were few even in the vicinity. Miller has been the nearest and the lone striker had a cheerless time of it as he sought to play himself into the game against what became a backdrop of chants demanding the arrival of Jordan Rhodes.
The Vancouver Whitecaps striker’s bleakest moment arrived on the hour mark after a lob into the box by Morrison. Miller, however, missed the ball completely with his head as he appeared to allow himself to be intimidated by the prospect of a challenge by the goalkeeper.
Shortly afterwards, Hampden began to echo with calls for Rhodes’ introduction. When Levein consented to change things, it was James Forrest who was sent on, for Snodgrass, after 69 minutes. It was fully another 12 minutes before Rhodes saw competitive action for the first time in his Scotland career, with Jamie Mackie also introduced for a short, nostalgic burst of the once customary 4-4-2 set-up.
A goal could and perhaps should have come, following a break upfield that saw Forrest’s shot parried by Stojkovic. And yet Serbia, too, had their own, more glaring, opportunity. Allan McGregor proved his worth by keeping Scotland’s hopes alive with a fine block from Tadic. It meant that, unlike against Czech Republic, when the concession of a late, heavily disputed penalty robbed Scotland of all three points, there could be little sense of grievance at having been denied a victory.
Scotland: McGregor, Hutton, Webster, Berra, Dixon, Caldwell, Naismith, Snodgrass (Forrest 69), Adam, Morrison (Mackie 81), Miller (Rhodes 81). Subs Not Used: Gilks, Hanley, Maloney, Cowie, Dorrans, McCormack, Phillips, Foster, Marshall.
Serbia: Stojkovic, Ivanovic, Bisevac, Nastasic, Kolarov, Mijailovic (Fejsa 45),Tosic, Ninkovic, Ignjovski, Djuricic (Lekic 83), Lazovic (Tadic 58). Subs Not Used: Kahriman, Tomovic, Maksimovic, Petrovic, Lukovic, Matic, Subotic, Markovic, Brkic.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
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