A dismal trip over the first steppe in the city previously known as Astana has left Scotland playing catch up in a qualifying group yet again.
This was Alex McLeish’s worst nightmare. A hellish echo created by the closed roof at the Astana Arena only increased his discomfort. So too would the knowledge he had sent out Scotland’s youngest side since the 1970s only to see them picked apart inside ten minutes.
The Scotland supporters were ordered to stay behind afterwards for 30 minutes. It should have been the players after this comprehensive defeat to a team ranked 117 in the world, whose previous greatest result was a 4-0 win over Andorra. Kazakhstan did not gain a single win during qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.
Russia, who Scotland view as rivals for second spot in the group, play here on Sunday night and can steal an early march on the Scots with a win.
Scotland presumably won’t lose to San Marino, the lowest ranked team in all Europe, on the same night but having witnessed this, anything can happen. Scotland plumbed a new depth here. Their previous worst-ever result is reckoned to be 2-2 v the Faroe Isles but the official low is last year’s defeat against Israel, then ranked 94 in the world.
It’s quite possible that Scotland christened a new city – Astana is in the process of being renamed Nursultan after the departing Kazakhstan president – with the national team’s worst result since 1872. It was a brutal, dismaying return to action following two promising wins at the end of last year.
At least McLeish will have captain Andy Robertson available against San Marino providing he has recovered from a mouth abscess, but Kieran Tierney has been ruled out due to an ongoing hip/pelvic problem. The skipper’s dental problems dominated the run up to this match – he had sought to travel on his own to Kazakhstan but the idea was nixed by Scotland’s medical staff.
Goals from Yuriy Pertsukh and Yan Vorogovskiy, both good ones admittedly, torpedoed Scotland’s carefully-laid plans inside ten minutes. They had travelled to central Asia four days before the game and remained on British time throughout in a bid to combat the weariness following such a long flight through six time zones.
They might have turned up in the county an hour before the match for all the good this seemed to do. Alexander Merkel was given all the time he wanted to drop a pass over the head of Scott McKenna for Yuriy Pertsukh, who took a neat touch before unleashing a fierce shot past Scott Bain with his left foot which clipped the underside of the bar before nestling in the net. Just six minutes had elapsed.
If this was bad enough, what happened next seemed barely credible. Scotland went two down. Their Euro 2020 hopes might be buttressed by a play-off place earned from their Nations League endeavours last year but the plan was to render this redundant by qualifying automatically from the group.
This already seems a remote possibility after schoolboy defending. Skipper Islambek Kuat was the architect of the second goal. He very intentionally probed Scotland where they are usually strongest. Graeme Shinnie is having a superb season for Aberdeen – in midfield. His re-deployment at left-back, where he hasn’t started a game since filling in there for Scotland against the Azteca stadium against Mexico last summer, was not a success.
Kuat’s clever angled pass was directed inside Shinnie, who failed to read Vorogovskiy’s run. The right midfielder slid in to get the required touch and direct the ball into the far corner past Bain, whose competitive debut was not going the way he had wished.
Players from teams like Ordabasy, Almaty Kairat and Dutch minnows Heracles Almelo were running amok. Scotland’s only discernible tactic was to get the ball to Oli Burke on the left flank and seek to use his pace to get behind the well-drilled Kazakh defence.
He did do this on occasion but lacked the necessary composure to deliver the final ball or telling shot. Stuart Armstrong also made it to the bye-line in this area of the pitch but the ball was cleared before James Forrest could pounce.
It was notable that the Celtic winger was the oldest player in the side at 27 years and eight months. The average age of the Scotland starting XI was 24 and-a-half. Everyone supports giving youth a chance and trying to build a team around players who will be around for a long time. However, doing so in such a potentially tricky assignment was exposed as folly.
Scotland barely threatened the Kazakh goal in either half. Armstrong at least had an effort on target after 55 minutes. His effort was tipped away by the diving goalkeeper Dmytro Nepohodov.
But by this point Scotland were already three down and looking utterly abject. McKenna was far too easily beaten in the air by Bakitiyor Zainutdinov, whose header was so well directed into the corner it looked goal-bound as soon as the ball left his forehead. Bain was helpless. Having conceded a goal six minutes into the game, they had allowed one in six minutes after the interval.
McLeish did all he could do. He sent substitutes on and ordered players forward – including the normally defensive-minded Scott McTominay, a replacement for John McGinn. But it had little or no effect. Scotland’s first booking came in the 84 th minute when Shinnie was cautioned for a late tackle on substitute Bauyrzhan Turysbek.
A sickening clash of heads between Kuat and Temirlan Yerlanov deprived Kazakhstan of the latter. But it was Scotland who left the field in a daze, wondering where they go next.