Gordon Strachan, sadly, is no closer to a solution in the search for the right formula up front to end the country’s painfully long absence from the business end of the tournament.
Castigated for playing Chris Martin in Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Lithuania, the Scotland manager’s recall of Steven Fletcher in Slovakia last night brought nothing more telling than the contentious moment when a crude challenge on the Sheffield Wednesday striker went unpunished in the build up to the first goal of a defeat which already looks to have crushed any prospect of reaching the 2018 finals.
When Gallacher spearheaded the country’s last successful bid to get there, he scored six goals over the series of ten group games which took Craig Brown’s squad to France in 1998. That matched the six goals contributed by Maurice Johnston when Scotland earlier plotted a path to the last of five consecutive World Cup finals appearances in 1990.
But in the four failed attempts to get there since that Parisienne summer of almost two decades ago, a common theme of Scotland’s struggles has been the absence of a consistently effective threat in attack. Billy Dodds was top scorer with just three goals in the 2002 campaign, while Kenny Miller headed the standings with the same tally four years later. In what appears to be a case of ever diminishing returns, the leading marksmen in the 2010 and 2014 campaigns were James McFadden and Robert Snodgrass respectively with just two goals.
Strachan’s defence of Martin’s performance against Lithuania was not wholly without justification, although he was clearly gilding the lily by describing it as “outstanding”. The manager’s decision to select Martin for the first two Group F qualifiers was certainly surprising, given the previous faith he had shown in Fletcher. Even when struggling at club level, Strachan had no doubts he was the right man to lead the line for his country.
Fletcher started nine of Scotland’s ten matches in the Euro 2016 qualification campaign, scoring seven goals – albeit six of those comprised his two hat-tricks against whipping boys Gibraltar. By his own recent standards, Fletcher has been in prolific form at domestic level with three goals in his last six appearances for Wednesday in the English Championship.
As he earned his 30th cap last night, he found himself embroiled in a bruising battle to impose himself on Slovakia’s uncompromising central defensive pairing of Martin Skrtel – back for the hosts after a ban – and Jan Durica.
Fletcher gave as good as he got much of the time and should have capitalised on cleverly stealing half a yard on Skrtel in the 12th minute to get on the end of a Robert Snodgrass cross. But from a prime position, he horribly miscued his header and sent the ball well wide of target.
Agonisingly for the Scots, Fletcher’s next significant involvement saw him the victim of the blatant off-the-ball foul from Durica which remarkably went unpunished by Swedish referee Martin Strombergsson and allowed Slovakia to launch the counter attack which brought them Robert Mak’s 18th-minute breakthrough strike.
In sharp contrast to Scotland’s striking difficulties of recent years, the goalkeeping position has caused them no problems. David Marshall is currently first among equals in a strong department of the squad and he underlined his quality with fine saves from Mak and Durica to prevent Slovakia increasing their lead before half-time. But just as he was for Mak’s opener, Marshall was helpless to prevent the Zenit St Petersburg player’s second of the evening 11 minutes into the second half as the evening began to unravel for Strachan. His misery was compounded when Adam Nemec headed home a third for the Slovaks.
The introduction of Leigh Griffiths came too late in the minds of many who feel the Celtic striker should be Scotland’s first choice up front. Winning his ninth cap, Griffiths is still waiting on his first goal for his country, although he did come close to pulling one back for the visitors. It would have been scant consolation.