There is no disgrace in dropping points to an excellent Austria side and the manner in which Scotland ensured they were not left in a worse position will live in the memory a very long time. Again one despairs about the absence of fans. John McGinn’s overhead equaliser with five minutes left was a goal for the ages and drew comparisons with Mo Johnston’s similar effort against Cyprus at the same Hampden end in 1989. It was raining then, too.
In their red tops with white sleeves, Austria looked and sometimes played like Dennis Bergkamp-era Arsenal. Kieran Tierney at least felt at home. Nine of Austria’s starting side were made up of Bundesliga players. Five of Scotland’s were from England’s top flight – a larger number than is often the case. And yet the difference was marked, initially at least, and in Stephen O’Donnell of Motherwell v Bayern Munich’s David Alaba, there was a delicious contest to observe on Scotland’s right flank. O’Donnell managed to outdo his more distinguished opposite man on the assist front with the free-kick delivery that saw Grant Hanley augment what felt like a second international debut for him with a goal. His only other international strike was eight years earlier against Wales.
Austria’s German-based players such as Alaba and Sasa Kalajdzic, the scorer of both their goals, were only able to feature due to the easing of Covid quarantine restrictions.
Steve Clarke had made some comments about his players wanting to test themselves against the best. However, Scotland’s hopes of taking something from the match and igniting this latest qualifying campaign were not helped by the availability of such quality. These aspirations were also not helped by the performance of Spanish referee Carlos del Cerro Grande. Clarke will have wished quarantine restrictions had prevented him being able to fulfil this assignment. His decision to wave play on after Stefan Ilsanker grappled Ryan Christie to the ground as he sought to reach O’Donnell’s looping cross was mystifying. It would have given the Scots an early opportunity to equalise after Kalajdzic’s opener just a minute earlier.
Indeed, despite being under the cosh for long stretches, Scotland should have gone ahead just before half-time after goalkeeper Alexander Schlager got himself into a fankle and presented the ball to Lyndon Dykes, who in turn set up Christie.
Schlager atoned for the error by saving the Celtic player’s effort with an outstretched leg. It was remarkable to think Scotland could and indeed should have taken a lead into half-time considering the way in which the match started. They were swamped.
Memories returned to the start of Scotland’s last regular qualifying campaign in Kazakhstan. It surely could not begin as badly as then, when Scotland trailed 2-0 after ten minutes. While an admittedly extreme example, it simply underlined Scotland’s tendency to give themselves too much to do when seeking to seal one of the top two places in a group, as they are trying to do in this case under Clarke.
Winning home matches is normally considered essential. One could not fail to ponder what it might have been like in different circumstances. After qualifying at long last for a major finals, Scotland could have counted on an upbeat, capacity crowd for their first game back on home soil since that memorable night in Belgrade. Instead, it was another night of shrieks echoing round the vast, empty bowl that is Hampden. The fact McGinn’s glorious equaliser was framed by banks of empty seats was a matter of significant regret.
Austria had initially looked good for every one of those 25 ranking places separating them from their hosts back in 48th position. Austria are not even the pot one team in Scotland’s group. Denmark enjoy that status and have already breezed to a 2-0 win in Israel, where Clarke’s side are due next. Scotland’s prospects of qualifying for Qatar must already be a matter for concern but they will accept a point from a night of see-sawing fortunes.
The visitors could have scored within the opening couple of minutes when a challenge by Jack Hendry pushed the ball into the path of Kalajdzic. Fortunately for Scotland, the towering Stuttgart striker’s effort whistled just wide.
Despite Che Adams’ high profile recruitment, Scotland did not actually include any new caps in their starting line-up. In saying that, two of the eleven might as well have been making their international bows such has been the length of time since they last played. Hendry has not featured since a Portugal friendly at the end of 2018, Grant Hanley’s last appearance dates to even before this and the first game of Alex McLeish’s second spell in charge against Costa Rica. They are relics of another age – the pre-Belgrade era.
The fact they made up two thirds of the back three was cause for some alarm. They needed to hit the ground running again. Hendry unwittingly set up a chance with one of his first touches while Hanley was booked for a crunching challenge on Christoph Baumgartner. They grew into the game thereafter but Hendry might have reacted slightly more quickly after Marshall could only palm a 25 yard from Florian Grillitsch into Kalajdzic’s path ten minutes after half time. The striker could not miss.
Hanley headed in the equaliser having profited from Austria’s high line after O’Donnell’s expertly delivered free kick. Austria looked to have secured the win when 6ft 7in Kalajdzic used every one of the three inches he has on Hendry to get above his marker and head past Marshall with ten minutes left.
Then came McGinn’s moment after Christie had headed Alaba’s clearance back into the box. He flipped himself up and connected with the ball with his left foot to keep Scotland at least in sight of the road signs to Qatar.