Russia adorned their return to the Luzhniki Stadium with an ultimately stylish win over a ragged Scotland.
Steve Clarke’s side were left to beat a hasty retreat after their fourth defeat in a row, the second successive one by a margin of four goals.
Clarke’s plan for an invigorating display with which to start building momentum before the Euro 2020 play-offs was shaken by the loss of two goals in three second-half minutes. Scotland’s redoubtable first-half efforts proved futile. Artem Dzyuba made sure of that.
That this finally signalled the end of Scotland’s automatic qualifying hopes felt almost like a footnote – or a mercy.
This victory didn’t take Russia to a major finals but it took them to the verge of one.
“Don’t drag your feet!” demanded the headline on the front of local sports paper, Sovetski Sport. They did in the first half. They pulverised Scotland in the second. Russia have still not quite secured their place at the finals but they won’t have long to wait.
It almost felt like the visiting players should have been cheering and hugging each other as they left the pitch at half-time with the score still goalless, so low were pre-match expectations. The second 45 minutes saw these apprehensions realised.
Scotland held out for a dozen more minutes when they reappeared, Lawrence Shankland among them. The Dundee United forward replaced the injured Oli Burke up front to complete a stunning journey from Alloa’s Indodrill stadium, where he played a week ago today, to the 80,000-capacity venue for the most recent World Cup final.
He settled himself with some assured initial touches but it was a player who has long since established himself at this level who eased Russian nerves. Dzyuba broke the deadlock after 57 minutes when steering an effort past David Marshall following Aleksandr Golovin’s corner. Magomed Ozdoev added a stunning second on the hour mark before Dzubya scored with frankly embarrassing ease ten minutes later.
He was almost playing keepie-up inside the six-yard box before prodding the ball past Marshall. Scotland had their first shot on target through substitute Ryan Christie shortly afterwards. It was that kind of night. That kind of campaign actually. Golovin wrapped things up six minutes from the end.
The last time Scotland played here, in March 1995, it finished 0-0. If the away team could have shaken hands with the opposition and settled for this before kick-off, they would have.
A clean sheet in this forbidding pit was a tall order, especially with a debutant in the back four and another making only his second appearance. Mikey Devlin was the former, the Aberdeen player whose last outing at club level was a bruising 5-0 defeat at Ibrox.
Liam Palmer replaced Stephen O’Donnell at right back to resume an international career that he feared was over following the abject 3-0 defeat to Kazakhstan in Scotland’s first game of the campaign so abjectly. Devlin sensibly concentrated on playing himself into the game and looked to Charlie Mulgrew beside him for guidance.
Sadly, his centre half partner is in the twilight of his international career and was in no position to offer reassurance.
It was possible to sense fellowship within a group of players who were deeply aware of the enormous challenge they had been set: resisting a Russian side energised by the knowledge qualification was so close and cheered on by a big, expectant crowd.
The fact these fans were welcoming their team back to a stadium they had not played at since beating Spain in the World Cup finals last year meant their ardour was intensified. It was testing environment and Scotland’s initial defiance, while laudable, always seemed of the fragile sort. When it broke, it broke.
They had put their bodies on the line for one another, no one more so than the often ridiculed Oli Burke. He started up front on his own and delivered a tireless shift that saw him overcome one hefty looking knock to the head in a clash with Georgi Dzhikiya.
There was little finesse but plenty of heart. This aptly described their collective first-half efforts. Marshall was relatively untroubled save for turning away an angled shot from Golovin. The Russian dangerman also sent a free-kick just over from a promising position.
Sheffield United’s John Fleck was another making a debut in a more withdrawn role than expected. He and Callum McGregor anchored the midfield. While Fleck had waited several years to finally put on the Scotland shirt, Shankland took just 45 minutes.
It was no dream debut however, the wily Dzyuba saw to that. The Zenit St Petersburg striker held off Mulgrew to put his side ahead. Ozdoev lashed a shot past Marshall from 20 yards minutes later.
Dzyuba hit the bar shortly afterwards with a speculative cross-shot before he added the third, outmuscling both Mulgrew and Devlin. It was like watching a playground bully toying with his hapless victims. Golovin sealed Scotland’s latest humiliation with angled shot into Marshall’s far corner.