Andraz Kirm’s header after 33 minutes provided the visitors with a jolt, and possibly gave Levein a reason to re-think his full-back options after Charlie Mulgrew and Russell Martin were both at fault as Miso Brecko’s cross from the right wreaked havoc in the Scotland defence. But there was nothing wrong with the visitors’ reaction. Within seven minutes Christophe Berra exposed deficiencies in the Slovenian defence to head home an equaliser and hand Scotland an encouraging result against a team ranked 21 places above them.
Indeed, Slovenia have World Cup qualifying ambitions of their own. Yet Scotland, missing key men in Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown, held their own on a trip which helped provide an indication of what they can expect to experience on forthcoming adventures in Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia. This is one reason why Levein chose to play Slovenia, who provided a stiff south-east European test.
Following the defeat in Spain in October, Levein had hinted that he might experiment with a two-person attack in forthcoming friendlies. However, here he restricted himself to selecting a player with a double-barrelled name to play as a lone striker.Jamie Mackie and James Forrest offered Craig Mackail-Smith support from either side of midfield.
The ploy appeared to work at first, although only after Scotland had to survive a near-thing when Josip Ilicic threaded a fine ball through to Valter Biras, whose effort was blocked by Allan McGregor’s legs.
A surprise was relayed by the teamsheets handed out prior to kick-off. They appeared to suggest Levein had decided against naming a single defender on the bench. This was later revealed to be a printing mistake and Grant Hanley and Ricky Foster supplemented the seven players named, as did goalkeeper Craig Gordon and Robert Snodgrass. It would have been a long way to come for these players to sit in the stand.
Nobody could describe Slovenia as pushovers, even if the staging of this match at the Bonifika stadium – capacity 4010 – gave the impression that Scotland were up against a lower division club side. Yet the hosts have made a better a fist of qualifying for major tournaments than Scotland in recent years and were present at the last World Cup, where they were beaten narrowly by England.
The surroundings made for a surreal switch of venues for Charlie Adam, who could be found spraying passes around Wembley’s lush turf just a few days earlier for Liverpool against Cardiff City. To be fair, the condition of the pitch was comparable to Wembley but Adam took a while to find his range. He overhit many of his first few passes but found the subtlety required after 26 minutes, when chipping into the path of James Morrison. The midfielder took a touch before shooting towards Samir Handanovic’s near post. The ‘keeper made a good save on to his post and was grateful to be able to clutch the ball to his chest after it fell back towards him.
Just a minute later McGregor tipped a Birsa free-kick over the bar as both goalkeepers enjoyed a sudden burst of activity. There was little McGregor could do about the goal which saw Slovenia take the lead after 33 minutes, however. There were others who had to admit culpability, including Mulgrew, sadly. The Celtic player has been earning rave reviews for his club at centre-half but was employed at full back by Levein. While he impressed going forward, he looked ill-at-ease when asked to defend and will regret his decision to dive in as Miso Brecko made his way down the right flank. The Slovenian right-back evaded the challenge and then had time to deliver a cross to the back post, where Kirm found Martin an easier defender to overcome in the air than should have been the case. His header bulleted beyond McGregor.
Scotland looked briefly shaken. However, they needed only seven minutes to drag themselves level, and Mulgrew re-claimed some credit by launching the attack which led to a corner on the left. Adam took the kick and Berra out-jumped a static-looking Slovenia defence to score a goal that was very similar in its execution to the opener. It was the least Scotland deserved, although Slovenia were clearly providing the kind of test Levein had desired.
The manager kept Kenny Dalglish on side by replacing Adam at half-time. Barry Bannan came on and quickly tested Handanovic with a long-range effort. The game was in danger of petering out as the second-half neared its midway point. Levein sought to provide some new impetus by sending on Robert Snodgrass for Mackail-Smith, and pushing Mackie up as the lone forward. Graham Dorrans also replaced Morrison as the game began to take on a slightly more experimental feel. Its flow was hampered by these stoppages although the fresh-legged Dorrans did his best to liven things up with some bursts of strong-running. Snodgrass, too, looked eager to make an impression and his cross to Mackie was headed just wide.
It proved to be Mackie’s last involvement of the evening. He made way for Kenny Miller, who became the third striker to feature in the lone forward’s position inside 90 minutes. Levein’s decision to stick rigidly to this formation again emphasised that he intends to do it his way when the road to Brazil begins in September.