It was a sense of deja vu all over again. A Scotland team with the early impetus, plenty of possession and the chances to make it count, undone by a more clinical opposition, with the patience and the ability to absorb any pressure the tartan triers could muster and then hit back with precision.
“We get knocked down but we get up again”, blasted Chumbawamba over the sound system at half-time. The song was obviously chosen to foster hope but while that might have stirred something positive in the younger supporters in the 4,557 crowd, whose high-pitched exaltations remained constant, the more jaded, cynical fans had seen it all before. We get knocked down but we don’t get back up again, not these days, not for a long time. Instead it is the likes of Iceland and Macedonia who are moving up.
That is why Scotland will not qualify from this group. With Iceland winning, second place is no longer in Scotland’s hands. They would need a heap of luck, a few favours and to win the three away games that now await them.
Even when Macedonia were reduced to ten men – the craziness and clumsiness of Egzon Bejtulai catching up with him with 20 minutes remaining as he first ploughed through Ryan Fraser on the far side touchline, earning a yellow card, before felling Liam Henderson a minute later to trade up to a red – Scotland could not find a cutting edge.
Ricky Sbragia frontloaded his team with as many offensive players as he could but it was all a bit too frantic, all a touch hurried and desperate and even when the goalkeeper Igor Aleksovski sustained an injury flapping at a Jordan McGhee cross ten minutes from the end and, with the visitors devoid of any more substitute options, rendering him little more than a hobbling nuisance, Scotland still couldn’t get back level, let alone find a way to carve out a win.
They tried, they definitely tried, but there was a lack of cohesion and composure that proved their undoing as the match descended into an ill-tempered bickerfest, on the pitch and in the technical areas, as every decision was contested and every chance was squandered. Jason Cummings was the culprit in the first half, the keeper’s acrobatics and quick reactions at least partially responsible for keeping him out, but Fraser the biggest offender in the second, ballooning over as space finally opened up for the home side.
Scotland twice thought things had gone their way in the dying moments but when Henderson nipped in and looked to have robbed the keeper of a ball he never seemed completely in control of to hit the back of the net, the officials spared the keeper’s blushes and chalked off the effort.
Then, with seconds remaining and things reaching boiling point, the referee signalled for a penalty before a swift consultation with his assistant convinced him, correctly, that it was a Scottish handball and the decision was reversed and the opportunity passed. Opportunity lost was the theme of the night.
Sbragia accepted that but was unhappy with the actions of the Macedonians and the undue influence he feels they exerted. “The mannerisms of the dugout on their side was diabolical, if that’s respect…It’s ridiculous and the more pressure they put on officials, the more they seemed to get,” he said.
It had been a promising start from Scotland. Fraser had driven wide in only the second minute and Stephen Kingsley’s scorching 30-yard drive required a smart save from Aleksovski. But the visitors were happy to hit on the break and grabbed the only goal of the contest on 18 minutes. Marjan Radeski took possession outside the box and slipped the ball to Kire Markoski, who swivelled and then fired his shot past Rangers goalkeeper Liam Kelly from around 16 yards.
It was only late on that Scotland really turned the pressure on but by then composure was something in short commodity in the ground as the red mist descended, frustration took hold and Scotland missed out yet again.