Ukraine may not have received a World Cup bye, but did the referee give them a free pass at Hampden?

Steven Naismith could be seen running down the touchline waving an imaginary yellow card.

This reaction provided a decent indication as to how the Scotland management staff viewed what could have proved a significant, possibly game-turning episode in the immediate aftermath of Ukraine going two goals in front against Scotland on Wednesday night.

It’s just that manager Steve Clarke knew it was impossible, given the context of the match, to come out afterwards and make an issue of it, particularly considering the paucity of Scotland’s performance.

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Despite mutterings about byes and forfeits, the play-off semi-final was played where it ought to have been – on the grass. Which means the rules of the game should have been applied. Had there been the strictest possible interpretation of one particular rule, then Scotland might well have been playing against ten men for over 40 minutes.

The reason the Scotland coach Naismith was so exercised is that impressive Ukraine striker Roman Yaremchuk, who was booked for a crude foul on Billy Gilmour in the first half, understandably raced off to celebrate with his compatriots housed in the corner of Hampden Park after he put his side 2-0 up with a header.

It was a well-worked goal and a genuinely affecting moment; even Scots were not immune to the significance.

Despite the likely consequences for Scotland, my immediate instinct was to take a photograph of the throbbing mass of humanity in the away end, as yellow-shirted player after yellow-shirted player, headed by Yaremchuk, were submerged by jubilant fans at the front.

Ukraine were now well on the way to a play-off final semi-final victory. Joy, as long as you were not Scottish, was unconfined.

Ukraine's Roman Yaremchuk (centre) jumps the advertising boards after scoring to make it 2-0 over Scotland at Hampden. (Photo by Ewan Bootman / SNS Group)

It would have taken a strong and possibly masochistic referee – is there any other type? – to have summoned Yaremchuk towards them and brandished a red card in his face. But Aston Villa full-back Matty Cash was booked in February for simply showing a message of support to Polish international teammate Tomasz Kedziora, who plays for Dynamo Kyiv, after scoring against Brighton.

The rules state that although players can now in fact leave the pitch to celebrate a goal the celebrations should not be excessive.

A player must be cautioned, even if the goal is disallowed, “for climbing onto the perimeter fence and/or approaching the spectators in a manner which causes safety and/or security issues."

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Naismith clearly believed Yaremchuk had crossed a metaphorical as well as physical line. He wasn’t alone.

One hopes, for Wales’ sake, that Antonio Mateu Lahoz, the Spanish referee in charge of today’s World play-off final between Wales and Ukraine, is not placed in a similar position to Danny Makkelie, the Dutchman in charge last Wednesday night.

It’s hard enough writing about such a sensitive issue, never mind being the one expected to make such impossible decisions as showing a red card to the scorer of a goal heard all around the world.

It perhaps demonstrates why calls to hand Ukraine a bye to the finals in Qatar were not as absurd as they first seemed. It would remove any suspicion of Ukraine being favoured in these high-octane ties.

It might not have made a jot of difference in Scotland’s case had Yaremchuk walked. They looked as if they would struggle to score two goals against ten men. But Ukraine did lose their way for a spell in the second half, so who knows?

It’s not sour grapes to point this out and neither is it heartless. It doesn’t mean I won’t be celebrating as loudly as anyone if Ukraine reach Qatar.

But Scots moan about not qualifying for the World Cup since 1998. Imagine being Wales and feeling the excitement at the prospect of an exile 40 years longer coming to an end. Their fate could hinge on a marginal call.

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Few would want to be in Senor Lahoz’s boots at 5pm this evening. Perhaps the referee should have retired when he originally said he would – after last summer’s Euro 2020 finals.



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