Scotland 1 - 0 Slovakia: Late own goal keeps World Cup hopes alive

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A bright harvest moon hung in the sky as Scotland reaped the rewards for having patience. But even the most fervent Tartan Army members were making alternative plans for next summer by the time their brave team secured victory over their dogged, ten-man opponents.

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Scotland's players celebrate after the winning goal. Picture: SNS

Scotland's players celebrate after the winning goal. Picture: SNS

An own goal from Martin Skrtel with a minute of normal time left meant Scotland’s agonies were transferred to Slovakia.

Gordon Strachan’s side must now win against Slovenia on Sunday to secure second place in Group F.

Strachan predicted a long, nervous night, and so it proved. Robert Mak’s 22nd-minute red card appeared to have smoothed the way for the Scots. But this is Scotland, who managed to hit the crossbar not once, but twice. Heartbreak upon heartbreak, curse upon curse.

“Scotland, Scotland!” chorused the fans, finding it difficult to believe they were to witness yet another hard luck tale. It was corresponding with the template for Scotland’s story over the years.

Martin Skrtel knocks the ball into his own net. Picture: Getty

Martin Skrtel knocks the ball into his own net. Picture: Getty

But Chris Martin, once an unloved figure for some, underlined his worth to Scotland.

The Derby striker had already struck the bar after coming on after the hour mark. His near post run to try to reach fellow substitute Ikechi Anya’s cross put sufficient pressure on Skrtel, off whom the ball rebounded past the flailing, otherwise excellent, Martin Dubravka.

Hampden erupted. Joy upon joy.

Scotland lost the battle of what shirt to wear but won the war. Fifa decreed that their blue home top’s white sleeves would be too hard to distinguish from Slovakia’s sleeves of the same colour. So Scotland stepped out in pink.

Robert Mak of Slovakia is shown a red card by referee Milorad Mazic. Picture: Getty

Robert Mak of Slovakia is shown a red card by referee Milorad Mazic. Picture: Getty

Barry Bannan, named alongside Darren Fletcher and James Morrison in midfield, was dispossessed early on to the fury of the Hampden crowd. But he – and Scotland – stuck to their task, even when forced to endure spells of Slovakia possession.

The home supporters were supportive from the off, quickly heartened by how close Christophe Berra came with a header from Leigh Griffiths’ cross. The ball seemed already to be behind Dubravka when he managed to claw it away.

It was an early sign it might be one of those nights for Scotland. What they didn’t need when seeking to negotiate a must-win game was a goalkeeper in inspired form.

But the fans tried to put such thoughts to the back of their minds. There were roars for a penalty when Kieran Tierney was upended by a challenge from Mak in the box. Referee Milorad Mazic judged it to be shoulder to shoulder. While this was enough to provoke fury the Scottish fans soon learned they should not question the official’s judgment.

He was spot on in the first instance and spot on again when he allowed hearts to retreat from the mouths of supporters who feared Craig Gordon had conceded a penalty after 20 minutes.

The sprawling Mak looked to be the victim of a clip from the Scotland goalkeeper. But the better-positioned Mazic was swift to judge otherwise, quickly producing the Slovakian midfielder’s second yellow card of a game still in its infancy – he had been booked for an earlier foul on James Forrest.

Not that Mak, who scored the opener after just 18 minutes when Scotland were thumped 3-0 in Slovakia 12 months ago, opted to go quietly. He was eventually ushered down the tunnel as Slovakia bemoaned their lot and Scotland took stock.

Pessimists instantly recalled Belgium in 2001, when Scotland threw away the advantage of having an extra man in a qualifier, losing a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2.

Those with longer memories referenced Uruguay in Nezahualcoyotl in 1986, when the Scots failed to make the most of en early red card at the Mexico World Cup finals.

Strachan was the player on the end of a bruising challenge from Jorge Batista. He wanted to avoid being wounded here.

Scotland needed to quickly adapt to these unexpected circumstances. Staying patient was now an even more applicable instruction. Slovakia sought to slow the ball down and frustrate the home supporters. Some howls indicated this plan was working in some cases.

The interval was observed with a strange foreboding. The upcoming 45 meant everything. Scotland had to start carving out better goalscoring chances for themselves. Instead, even with ten men, Slovakia were threatening just as much, in their case on the break. Gordon blocked a fierce shot from Jan Gregus with his legs.

Relief rumbled round Hampden. What had to be avoided was the loss of a goal. Strachan summoned Martin from the bench and sent him on to replace Forrest. A saviour against Slovenia in March, he once again made the difference. But he seemed set for frustration at first as he watched a 20-yard shot strike the crossbar minutes after coming on. The bar will still be shaking when the World Cup kicks off in Russia, hopefully with Scotland there.

Shortly afterwards Martin earned a foul in the same area of the park where he had done so against England in June. We all know what happened then.

It so nearly happened again. But Griffiths’ effort from 22 yards struck the crossbar. Fletcher, head swathed in a bandage after a knock, was replaced by James McArthur. That switch didn’t fill Hampden with hope. McArthur played a part but it was Anya and Martin, the other two substitutes, who combined to send Scotland into second place. They now just need to stay there.

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