Even when playing in a dead rubber Scotland can flirt with a way of taking a significant hit. A goal down at half-time, they faced coming up short when challenged with the meagre ambition of finishing third in Group I.
But they finally got to grips with their lowly opponents to score two quickfire second-half goals by John McGinn and skipper Steven Naismith. McGinn, the current team’s version of Denis Law, got his second of the night in time added on to make it seven goals in his last six outings. Such clinical finishing against this particular set of opponents has proved eight months too late.
Tens of thousands of empty seats told their own story following a campaign to forget but the reported crowd of 19,515 was still impressive in the circumstances. All attention has long been focused on the play-off semi-final in March, with the opposition to be revealed at Friday’s draw in Nyon. It will be at home against one of Bulgaria, Israel, Romania or Hungary.
Before that Steve Clarke’s side were required to negotiate a final qualifier without mishap in order to at least live up to their third-seed billing. This matters in term of the next World Cup qualifying campaign. They got off to the worst possible start after falling behind in the first half thanks to an unstoppable shot by Baktiyor Zainutdinov. Frustratingly for Clarke, who prides himself in being able to organise teams defensively, it was the product of more poor defending.
Clarke named an unchanged team for the first time in four double-headers in an attempt to ensure some momentum following Saturday’s 2-1 win over Cyprus on a warm afternoon in Nicosia. Scotland, by contrast, seem contractually bound to play games on dark, dreich nights at Hampden these days. This was just the latest of them.
The mood matched the conditions when Zainutdinov’s shot from 25 yards kissed the inside of Marshall’s post. It was the fourth successive goal Kazakhstan had put past Scotland in this campaign. Whether Scotland could find a reply after proving so toothless in March was the burning question.
Kazakhstan, now ranked 121 in the world, have won only twice in eight games since then, both times against San Marino. The race for third place was still very much alive in the second half of the last match of the campaign. Indeed, Scotland were the ones playing catch-up at this stage. This was not the plan.
But it was not completely surprising. The visitors had carved out the first chance of the game and probably should have taken an early lead when Dmitri Shomko’s cross to the back post eluded Declan Gallagher and presented Aleksei Schetkin with a chance. Greg Taylor did just enough to put him off and Marshall was able to collect relatively easily.
The hosts were being restricted to rather more hopeful efforts from the edge of the box. McGinn tried his luck with a shot that took a few bounces across the turf before spinning past the far post. At this stage Ryan Christie looked the more likely to add to his goal from Saturday against Cyprus. A curling, dipping shot almost caught out Dmytro Nepogodov at his near post. Another effort from the Celtic midfielder almost caught out the keeper after it was flicked on by Naismith. Scotland were looking more dangerous after surviving a nervy opening spell but were rocked by the loss of the opening goal after 33 minutes. As seems so often the case, once again they were authors of their own downfall. Palmer conceded possession sloppily on the right allowing Aleksei Schetkin to play a ball into Zainutdinov’s feet.
The FC Rostov player took a touch and then was pleasantly surprised to find no Scotland players seeking to close him down. McKenna, if anything, backed off. Zainutdinov took full opportunity to lash a curling left-footed shot into the net off a post. Marshall did not stand a chance. When Christie’s free-kick from a promising position cleared the bar in time added on at the end of the first half, Scotland were left with 45 minutes to salvage something from the campaign. A foul on Naismith on the edge of the box a couple of minutes into the second half provided Scotland with another tempting opportunity.
This time McGinn took the responsibility and while his effort was powerfully struck and may well have beaten the keeper in any case, a deflection off skipper Bauyrzhan Islamkhan guaranteed there was no way of stopping it.
Scotland now sensed three points. It would be wrong to claim they were roared on to victory, but the faithful few inside Hampden did their bit.
James Forrest shot just past the upright and Naismith was denied only by a near-post block after good work by Christie and Palmer. It was fitting that the Hearts striker scored the winner. He has put so much on the line to play after an injury-hit season and showed determination to get his head to Palmer’s heavily deflected cross to score his tenth international goal. Naismith will acknowledge the help of McGinn, who bundled the keeper to the turf.
The Aston Villa midfielder himself scored Scotland’s third in the 91st minute turning in Taylor’s cross from the left.