WHATEVER long-term plans Gordon Strachan has for Scottish international football, the more immediate future is unlikely to involve a trip to the next European under-21 Championship finals.
The Scotland manager’s week-long involvement with Ricky Sbragia’s squad ended in frustration when they were held to a draw at home to Ukraine. It leaves them in fourth place in Group 3, six points behind leaders Iceland.
After a positive response to a disjointed start, with goals from Jason Cummings and Callum Paterson wiping out Dmytro Khlyobas’ opener for Ukraine, the Scots let victory slip from their grasp in the closing stages when Oleksander Svatok equalised.
It could have been even worse, the visitors denied a stoppage time winner by Dominic Hyam’s dismissal for cynical foul.
It was hardly the most encouraging evening for Strachan or anyone else with the interests of Scottish football at heart.
Ukraine belied the form which had seen them lose their first three matches in the group, displaying far superior technical ability and tactical awareness than theirs hosts in the opening stages.
Their captain and playmaker, Vladlen Yurchenko of Bayer Leverkusen, caused all sorts of grief with his quick feet and intelligent movement.
He posed the first threat to Jack Hamilton’s goal when he curled a right-foot shot narrowly wide in the fifth minute.
The Hearts goalkeeper was called into action a minute later, responding superbly with a terrific double save to deny Khlyobas and then Ihor Zhurakhovskyi. The latter stop by Hamilton, from point-blank range, was exceptional.
Andrew Robertson, back in the under-21 side for the first time in two years after his elevation to the senior squad, provided the first source of encouragement for the home fans who had ventured out on a cold and squally evening in Paisley.
The left-back embarked on a marauding run to set up a chance for Billy King who cut inside and sent a shot just wide of Bogdan Sarnavskyi’s left-hand post.
The Scots were still struggling to contain Yurchenko, however, and Jordan McGhee picked up the first yellow card of the night for a clattering foul on the Ukraine skipper.
Hibs striker Cummings had his first chance to make an impression on proceedings in the 15th minute when he did well to set up King for a shot which was parried by Sarnavskyi. The ball was knocked back into the penalty area by Paterson, picking out the unmarked Liam Henderson whose close-range shot was superbly blocked by the Ukraine ‘keeper.
Although Scotland had improved after their deeply unimpressive start, Ukraine were still not flattered when they opened the scoring in the 26th minute.
The goal came from an unforced error by central defender Hyam, the Reading player giving the ball away to Yurchenko under little pressure just outside his own penalty area. Ukraine pounced eagerly on his slackness as the ball was delivered to Khlyobas who rifled a right-foot shot beyond Hamilton from around 14 yards.
The manner of Scotland’s response to the setback would have been as pleasing to Strachan as their opening to the match had been alarming.
An increase in tempo led them first to the equaliser five minutes later. Dmytro Myshnov conceded a free-kick with a clumsy foul on Henderson around ten yards outside the penalty area. John McGinn floated the set piece towards the six-yard box where Cummings rose to head home his first goal for Scotland at this level and his eighth in as many games for club and country.
Ukraine should have regained the lead almost immediately, Myshnov glancing a free header wide from close range after being found by Andriy Bliznichenko’s corner.
But Scotland made the most of that reprieve when they went 2-1 in front in the 37th minute. Cummings turned creator this time, engineering space on the left to deliver a low cross which was flicked home by Paterson at the near post.
Sbragia made two changes at the interval with Paterson and Donald Love, both booked in an occasionally fractious first half, replaced by Callum McFadzean and Craig Slater.
Both teams contrived to miss the very definition of sitters in the early stages of the second half. Khlyobas should have grabbed his second goal of the night when more sloppy defending from Scotland left him with only Hamilton to beat but he dragged his shot horribly wide.
Henderson was equally profligate at the other end, getting his angles all wrong as he collected a pass from King and screwed an effort off target from little more than four yards out.
Scotland looked far from comfortable with their lead and the warning signs were there when substitute Denys Bezborodko flashed a shot narrowly wide as Ukraine probed for the leveller.
The visitors got their reward when Scotland were unable to properly clear a corner from Oleksander Zinchenko. When Eduard Sobol’s shot was blocked, the ball fell to Svatok who smashed it high beyond Hamilton from close range.
In a frenetic finale, Cummings struck the crossbar from close range before Hyam prevented his own error from gifting Ukraine a stoppage-time winner as he earned a straight red card for hauling down Bezborodko after allowing the forward a clear run on goal.
Ukraine were understandably frustrated by the Belgian referee’s refusal to allow play to continue before making the call as Bezborodko tapped home.
SCORERS: Scotland - Cummings (31’), Paterson (37’); Ukraine - Khlyobas (26’), Svatok (83’)
Referee: N Laforge (Bel)