Everything seemed to be progressing as normal. Brave performance. Check. Heart-breaking climax. Check. But then came Scotland’s recently acquired taste for penalties. David Marshall, this veteran keeper who recently broke the record for longest Scotland career, pulled off the moment of those 16 years, two months and 27 days since his debut v Hungary, when he dived to his left to turn away Aleksandar Mitrovic’s penalty. There was even more torture to endure as a VAR check took place to judge whether Marshall had moved off his line too early. Mercifully, the save stood.
It was the last of ten otherwise perfect kicks. Those such as Oli McBurnie and Leigh Griffiths, who only came on the park a few minutes earlier, held their nerve.
Scotland, they’ll just let you down, they said. Not this time. Not in Belgrade. Not on Steve Clarke’s watch. Not these days.
Clarke is an unlikely, somewhat whiskery, fairy godmother. Scotland shall go to the ball.
No-one is quite sure where they will be heading – Russia, Glasgow or elsewhere. Uefa have still to confirm what exactly is happening with a tournament likely to be affected by Covid-19. But as it stands, Scotland are scheduled to play Czech Republic in their opening game of Euro 2020 at Hampden Park on June 14 next year.
Not that anyone in Scotland will care about the details, not yet anyway. They will simply relish the thought of being at a major tournament. For the first time since 1998.
Snatched away on 90 minutes
How we are looking forward to consigning that statistic to the bin. Ryan Christie’s fine strike six minutes after half-time was everything Scotland deserved at the time. A nation looked on agog. Sky Sports had admirably out the game on a free to air channel with fans not permitted to travel or gather in pubs, the way it once was. The new normal they call it. It threatened to be an old familiar tale in the stadium when substitute Luka Jovic’s downward header evaded Marshall’s despairing reach in the last minute of normal time. Scotland then endured a torturous period of extra-time when the pattern of the game swung firmly in their hosts’ favour.
Many began questioning Clarke’s decision to replace three of Scotland’s best players with the minutes down towards the end of the second half, and while Scotland clung to that lead handed them by Christie. Lyndon Dykes went off for McBurnie while Kenny McLean replaced John McGinn. Both McBurnie and McLean eventually played their part, converting well under unbearable pressure in the shoot-out.
Dykes had already contributed so much. He wasn’t even registered to play for Scotland at the start of this year. He grew up on Australia’s Gold Coast. They should now build a statue to him in Moniaive, the town in Dumfries and Galloway where his father grew up. Dykes was immense in the 83 minutes he was on the field. So, too, was Declan Gallagher, his former team-mate at Livingston. Who would have thought it?
Perhaps obscured amid all the elation is Scotland are now nine games unbeaten, for the first time since 1976. Next stop Slovakia as Clarke's side attempt to make it ten games unbeaten on Sunday in a Nations League match. So high are spirits in the camp, they could float there.
Rarely has so much hope been invested in a group of Scottish footballers. Those who played against Italy 13 years ago, the last time the Scots had come as close to qualifying, were a talented bunch but had the added difficulty of negotiating a way past the then world champions, Italy, and also France. Serbia are good, but they are not that good. Scotland still had to beat a team ranked above them on their own patch.
Teeming rain had offered some hope. So too did a start that saw the Scots confidently stroke the ball around the sodden pitch. Serbia, despite their side including several players from La Liga and Serie A, seemed to be the ones suffering from stage fright.
Clarke’s selection had contained few surprises. Kieran Tierney came in at left centre half at Andrew Considine’s expense while Gallagher, whose dependability was underlined last month when Scotland posted three successive clean sheets, kept his place at the heart of the three-man defence.
His battle with the burly Fulham striker Aleksander Mitrovic was a fascinating feature of the early stages. The Motherwell defender proved he isn’t one to be pushed about. He was yellow carded just before half-time after Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz strangely interpreted one of those occasions when he proved resolute, on this occasion when jumping with Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, as being an infringement.
How it all unfolded
Elsewhere, Scotland looked as they have done under Clarke in recent times. Solid. Everyone seemed to know their job. Everyone seemed well briefed. Stephen O’Donnell is not everyone’s idea of an international wing-back but he pounded the right flank as Scotland spent a surprising amount of time in the hosts’ half. Serbia worried Marshall only once in the first-half when a Sasa Lukic shot whistled past his far post from 20 yards after a lay-off from Mitrovic.
As for Scotland, Dykes was causing the Serbian defence untold problems. He won the majority of the high balls that came his way, including in the lead-up to a chance for John McGinn, whose shot was not powerful enough to unduly trouble Predrag Rajkovic.
The feeling was Serbia could only improve in the second half. They did, eventually. But they still seemed all at sea when they re-emerged. In that time Scotland were able to take the lead. The visitors had even passed up a glorious chance just a few moments before when Dykes capitalised on a slip by Stefan Mitrovic to set-up Robertson, whose composure then deserted him as he blazed high over.
Filip Kostic’s slack pass into midfield was intercepted by the ever-industrious McGregor, who fed Christie on the edge of the box. He turned one way and then another before unleashing a left-foot that sped across the wet turf and smacked the post. The ball might have been expected to bounce back out. It didn’t. It kissed the post before nestling in the back of the net. It was the potentially priceless goal their efforts deserved. Clarke showed barely a flicker of emotion on the bench.
McGregor might have added another shortly afterwards. His long-range effort bent just wide. Christie himself might have struck again. His angled shot also flew narrowly past. There was a scare at the other end when Milinkovic-Savic headed into the side-netting. It signalled the sting in the tail that duly came but not before Jovic tempted Scots watching at home to think otherwise, when he planted a header narrowly past. Would it be different on this night of all nights? The same player got his head to a corner on one of the only occasions the Scottish defence had come up short all evening. Scott McTominay briefly lost his man at a corner and Jovic’s downward header bounced up off the turf and evaded Marshall’s despairing reach.
Here we go again, we thought. Now it’s just a case of here we go.
Serbia: Rajkovic; Milenkovic, S Mitrovic (Spajic 108), Gudelj; Lazovic, Maksimovic (Jovic 70), Lukic, Kostic (Mladenovic 59); Milinkovic-Savic (Katai 70), Tadic, A Mitrovic. Subs not used: Dmitrovic, Rockov, Gacinovic, Grujic, Kolarov, Radonjic, Ristic, Vlahovic.
Scotland: Marshall; McTominay, Gallagher, Tierney; O'Donnell (Griffiths 117), McGregor, Jack, McGinn (McLean 83), Robertson; Christie (Paterson 87), Dykes (McBurnie 83). Subs not used: Gordon, McLaughlin, Considine, Cooper, McKenna, Palmer, Paterson, Armstrong, Burke.
Referee: A Lahoz (ESP).