Scotland's World Cup dream left in tatters as wretched performance lets them down against Ukraine on biggest stage

It was a night when Scotland faced earning the tag of the most disliked team in world football. They ended up letting no-one down except themselves and their loyal, long-suffering fans.

While Scotland’s popularity around the globe might remain intact, their World Cup dreams are not. The country’s wait of 24 years has been extended to 28 years – at least – in the space of 90 severely deflating minutes after a 3-1 defeat by Ukraine.

Some solace might eventually be found in the identity of the team now heading to Cardiff for a World Cup play-off final against Wales on Sunday night. But it’s cold, cold comfort at present. Ukraine deserved this. Their people deserved it. What is Scotland’s World Cup exile next to their hardship?

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But Scots are surely permitted to feel the heartache wrought by another missed opportunity. There was at least an attempt at a rousing finale. John McGinn skewed a header wide from close range that had Chris Iwelumo wondering: how did he miss that? Then Ukraine ‘keeper Georgiy Bushchan allowed Callum McGregor’s shot to slip through his fingers and Taras Stepanenko was unable to clear the ball before it crossed the line. There were 11 minutes left. Hampden was suddenly alive again.

Ukraine's Andriy Yarmolenko scores to make it 1-0 during a FIFA World Cup Play-Off Semi Final between Scotland and Ukraine at Hampden Park.
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The possibility that Scotland might now mount an Israel-style comeback had been raised. These hopes, however, proved forlorn. In truth, a salvage mission from two goals down always seemed beyond a Scotland team whose ambitions were restricted by too many under performing players.

Substitute Artem Dovbyk extinguished any chance of forcing extra-time at least when slamming home Ukraine’s third goal with what proved to be the last kick the match. The Scotland players buckled. Some fell to the ground. Ukraine were the fresher team and had looked it. Granted, they had a cause. They had a purpose and a loyalty to an abused and exploited land. But they also boasted the better footballers. Sometimes football can be very simple even if they backdrop to this particular fixture was so complicated and politically loaded.

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While Steve Clarke might well question himself and some of his players, he could have no complaints about the Tartan Army. The manager had instructed them to be as respectful as possible to the Ukrainian national anthem before kick-off before offering their usual stout support. They did that and more.

The Ukrainian players wore their country’s flag like shawls over their shoulders when they emerged from the tunnel and were applauded onto the pitch by the home fans. Such deference did not last long, however. The huddle performed by their players just prior to kick-off was roundly booed. Normal Hampden niceties had resumed.

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Ukraine's Roman Yaremchuk (centre) celebrates in front of the fans after scoring their side's second goal of the game against Scotland.

Although it said Ukraine on the team sheet, this was, to all intents and purposes, a Rest of the World XI given that it was clear who the neutrals were favouring. At the end, even the Scottish fans applauded the victors from the park. These supporters were disappointed, sure. But they are also knowledgeable and wise and could recognise the wider implications. Even ignoring the context in which this game was set, Ukraine proved they were simply the better side on the night.

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As many as six of the Ukraine starting XI were drawn from their domestic league. That meant the majority had not played any competitive football since late last year. They had been honing their fitness at a camp in Slovenia. It had seemed a tall order for them to arrive in such an intense environment and hit the ground running.

Manager Olexandr Petrakov insisted his side could rise to the occasion on a night when they were playing for more than simply the right to play Wales. Indeed, he promised that they would. He was spot on. Scotland had no answer to their strong running and slick passing in the first hour.

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The hosts picked the wrong night to produce perhaps their least cohesive performance of recent times under Clarke. They looked drained compared with the visitors, who might have been three or four goals up before the 60-minute mark. Scotland did not manage a shot on target in the opening 45 minutes. They perked up in the second half, but it was too little, too late.

Scotland's John McGinn (right) missed a great chance for the hosts.
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It was only a World Cup play-off semi-final. But, in some respects, it felt like the final of the competition itself, such was the intensity and profile. For the first time since Hampden hosted the 2002 Champions League final, it really did feel like the old stadium was at the centre of the footballing world.

The SFA sought to make things as cordial as possible for the 3,500 Ukraine fans although they had to draw a line somewhere. The front page of the match programme depicted a selection of Scottish heroes. At the last home match against Poland in March, when this fixture was originally scheduled to be played, a huge Ukraine flag had featured in the same space. Not this time. As Clarke said in his manager notes, “now it’s about football”.

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And indeed it was. Sadly for Scotland, Ukraine demonstrated their class when it came to settling matters on the grass, where the outcome always had to be decided despite mutterings about byes and forfeits. The warning signs were there long before Andriy Yarmolenko gave his side the lead just after the half hour mark with an artfully executed lob over Craig Gordon. Ruslan Malinovski’s long pass from deep in his own half put the backtracking Grant Hanley and Liam Cooper in all sorts of trouble.

Gordon had already kept his side in the game with a series of fine saves. Only eight minutes had elapsed when he was forced to tip a shot from Viktor Tsygankov over the bar. The home team kicked off with the aim of putting the visitors under as much pressure as possible early on, hence Clarke starting with two strikers in Lyndon Dykes and Che Adams.

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Dykes made way for Ryan Christie at half-time. This attempt to rectify matters had barely been put into practice before Scotland found themselves two goals down, after Roman Yaremchuk easily evaded Aaron Hickey, who endured a tough night at right wing-back, and Scott McTominay at the back post to head home. The Benfica striker raced off to celebrate with the away fans behind the goal.

Dutch referee Danny Makkelie showed clemency when resisting handing Yaremchuk a second booking of the match. The Scottish fans were apoplectic at this seeming wilful refusal to implement rules. The good vibes evident pre-match had most definitely faded. This was getting serious – and potentially embarrassing.

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Scotland were relying on another stellar performance from their goalkeeper. Gordon had kept his side in the tie in the first half, pouncing to retrieve the ball before it was swept in by Yaremchuk after he had already blocked Yarmolenko’s shot when it seemed certain the skipper would score.

Unlike the hosts, who had drawn with Poland on their last outing here, Ukraine had actually won their last match at Hampden – a last 16 Euro 2020 tie v Sweden 12 months ago. Scotland, though, were seeking to defend an eight-match unbeaten sequence. That now lies in pieces. And yet it’s nothing compared to the shattering of another World Cup dream.