The fans were chanting “Stevie Clarke’s Tartan Army” even before John McGinn’s tenth-minute strike put Scotland into the kind of early lead that is itself a test. This is where the new manager was meant to impose his authority on the proceedings.
One of Clarke’s qualities, showcased to such good effect at Kilmarnock, is eking out results against superior teams. Russia aren’t that much better than Scotland in terms of official ranking. Placed 46, they currently lie just two places above their hosts.
But the gulf appeared far wider on Friday night as Stanislav Cherchesov’s side responded positively to the loss of such an early goal to earn a win that means the special result Clarke urged his team to deliver to the long-suffering fans continues to elude Scotland.
They have another chance against Belgium on Monday but, if the difference in quality was apparent between two such supposedly well-matched teams, Scotland will surely find it an impossible task against the world’s top-ranked side.
Despite its Friday night slot allowing for high spirits, this was another sobering evening for the home supporters. They did their best to rouse the team in an action-packed conclusion when so much was on the line. It felt like a play-off for second place was happening before our eyes as the action raged from end-to-end, with Charlie Mulgrew clearing off the line after a Russia breakaway following a goalmouth scramble that eventually saw Callum McGregor’s goal-bound effort blocked.
Strikes in either half from Artem Dzyuba and what was harshly confirmed as a Stephen O’Donnell own goal rendered McGinn’s first goal for his country all but meaningless and meant Scotland’s campaign is feared irretrievable after three defeats in their opening five matches. So much more seemed possible in the opening minutes. McGinn might have put Scotland ahead earlier than he did. A first minute effort bounded past a post.
Liam Cooper was handed a testing debut against Dzyuba, Russia’s muscular centre-forward and skipper. The Scotland backline seemed to be coping until Andy Robertson was the unlikely provider of the kind of assist for which he didn’t want any credit. In trying to take the ball off Monaco midfielder Aleksandr Golovin after a Russian move down the right again exposed Scotland’s vulnerability the Liverpool full back simply directed the it into the path of Dzyuba, the Zenit St Petersburg forward.
Having already watched David Marshall strain to tip his header over, avoiding making the striker have to work for his chance from 12 yards out was an unwelcome development. Dzyuba took a touch and slipped the ball past Marshall. To add insult to Robertson’s night, the ball seemed to take a nick off him. Hampden promptly lost its Friday night feeling.
In truth, this goal, five minutes before half-time, had been coming and the anxiety was beginning to grow in the stands after Scotland’s bright start had got the supporters singing.
O’Donnell scores a few goals from right back for Kilmarnock - in the right end normally - and he almost opened his Scotland account after McBurnie’s rose to meet Ryan Fraser’s corner.
The ball deflected off Georgi Dzhikiya into O’Donnell’s path. His flick from a couple of yards bashed back off the post.
Scotland edged ahead moments later. Again McBurnie was at the heart of things but without actually touching the ball this time.
He was the main reason why Guillherme, the Russia keeper, seemed spooked as he sought to gather Ryan Fraser’s in-swinging cross from the left. His fumble saw the ball fall to McGinn, who took a touch before slamming into the net in the manner he’s been doing with increasing regularity for Aston Villa.
McBurnie’s contribution had to be acknowledged and he was his usual bustling self on his eighth appearance for the international side.
Sadly for the Scots, he produced another goal-less performance on a night when he was being particularly heavily scrutinised after a video appearing to show him scorning the international set-up was released online at the end of last month.
All was forgiven after he addressed the squad earlier this week and the fans too were urging him on regardless. But doubts remain about his ability to lead the line at this level. Indeed, lack of true quality in positions designed to hurt opponents is continuing to cost Scotland. Scotland lacked someone like Golovin, who started to run amok.
He drifted in from the left before slashing a shot just wide from the edge of the box four minutes after half-time. Ten minutes later the same blond head was tormenting the hosts – and Cooper in particular. The Russian playmaker got the wrong side of the defender to latch on to Alexei Ionov’s measured through ball and hit a first-time cross to the back post.
Yuri Zhirkov seemed to reach it ahead of O’Donnell to bundle home at the back post but the ball rebounded off the defender’s knee to apply what many were interpreting as Scotland’s knock-out blow.