Macedonia 1 - 0 Scotland: Damage done in Skopje could be beyond repair

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THIS may be only the dawn of the World Cup qualifying campaign, but, proverbially, it is the time that offers the best opportunity to catch the worm. In Macedonia, Scotland overslept.

The need of an early rise, fully awake and alert to the possibilities of a fruitful day, is especially urgent when the schedule is as truncated as the one facing the Scots in Group 9, presenting only eight matches in which to amass enough points to secure at least a place in the play-offs that will nourish the hope of reaching South Africa in two years' time.

This is no long-distance event, with a chance of overhauling front-runners who may weaken as a result of setting the kind of scorching pace that cannot be maintained. With three of those precious points already gone beyond recall, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the expedition to Skopje was an unqualified disaster.

The defeat is damaging enough in itself, but of even more depressing significance was the manner in which it was sustained and the absence of any portents that would encourage belief in the possibility of a more productive immediate future, that an already unpromising predicament can be remedied.

Whatever optimistic pronouncements the manager, George Burley, and his players may make – and they cannot reasonably be expected to say anything else in public – they are overwhelmed by the visual evidence of a performance at the Gradski Stadium which hints strongly at forthcoming bleakness.

At the core of this pessimism is the inescapable truth that, with the possible exception of the goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, the present Scotland squad does not boast a single outstanding player, one who would be coveted by a leading club or country for his ability to exert a telling, even decisive, influence on a match.

Macedonia, contrastingly, had several, but most notably Veliche Shumolikoski, and he plays for Ipswich Town, currently occupying 17th place in the Championship in England. As the tall midfielder took control of his designated area, pushing past opponents at will, sending passes to teammates in threatening positions and providing menace of his own in forward areas, it was difficult to remember when the Scots last possessed a player of such intimidating potency.

It was Shumolikoski who, having moved on to a headed clearance of a corner kick by Paul Hartley, produced the thundering, 30-yard volley in the second half which prompted an astonishing save from Gordon, the latter having seen the ball late as it swerved high to his left. Gordon had to be similarly reactive to push a close-range volley on the turn from Ilco Naumoski over his bar when the striker reached a long throw-in from the right.

This excellent work from Gordon was required during a second half in which Burley, ludicrously, had described his team's performance as "outstanding". For all the improvement they had shown compared to their lifelessness in the first 45 minutes, they had not given the home goalkeeper, Petar Milosevski, anything like the problems with which Gordon had to cope.

In his bizarre description of the Scots' work after the interval, it is fair to say that Burley would be a victim of the mild irrationality that afflicts managers in the immediate aftermath of a fraught experience, when their minds are in turmoil and their tongues run loose, like horses turned out in a field.

Burley may be generally unimpressive as a public speaker – it is, for example, difficult to imagine him capable of the oratory that will inspire players to excel themselves, to achieve results that belie their overall mediocrity – but he will certainly be astute enough to realise in private that the most serious hindrance to his chances of doing an acceptable job is the basic shoddiness of his equipment.

He already appears to have modified his initial intention of turning the Scots into a more aggressive unit, with midfield players thrusting forward in support of strikers and putting opponents under pressure, even in away games. By the eve of the match in Skopje, he was talking of "making us hard to beat, and then attacking when the opportunity arises".

The 4-4-2 he favoured may have appeared an aggressive formation on paper, but it was clear from the start that the priority was containment, with the aim of countering at opportune moments. That the plan should disintegrate within five minutes, when Naumoski delivered the winning goal, merely made his players more inhibited, clearly fearful of losing a second.

The Czech referee, Pavel Kralovec, was criticised for the awarding of the free kick which brought the goal, but it was not difficult to see how he could be duped by Goran Maznov, the striker deliberately trailing his right foot to create the illusion that he had been tripped by Stephen McManus.

Set up by Goran Pandev and Maznov, the Macedonia captain, Goce Sedloski, hit a powerful drive low to the right of Gordon, who made a terrific save, touching the ball on to the post. Naumoski was one of three home players who could have netted the rebound, the Scottish defenders having remained static as the action unfolded.

While there was merit in the argument that Scotland should have had a penalty kick when James McFadden was tripped, citing the incident as a major factor in the defeat merely deflects from the discomforting truth that the better team not only won, but should have done so by a wider margin.

The appearance of Kris Commons and Shaun Maloney as second-half substitutes gave the Scots a livelier look in the closing stages, but, in the torrid heat of the afternoon, it is reasonable to argue that their sprightliness was slightly exaggerated by the wilting energy of those around them.

Iceland await in Reykjavik on Wednesday and, since they drew 2-2 in Norway soon after the Scots' failure in Skopje, the assignment suddenly assumes the look of another formidable obstacle.