Scotland stumbled on the slopes of Mount Carmel. Israel were meant to be on their knees. Haifa, where two-thirds of the 30,000-capacity Sammy Ofer stadium lay empty, was hardly a partisan fortress.
Dor Peretz gave away the penalty to raise Scotland’s UEFA 2020 qualifying hopes still further before turning in the equaliser that helped dash them.
It quickly went from bad to worse for Alex McLeish’s side, who had gone ahead through Charlie Mulgrew’s well-taken penalty after 25 minutes.
Hearts’ John Souttar was sent off for a second bookable offence just after the hour mark after his flailing arm caught Munas Dabbur.
Kieran Tierney’s sliced an attempted clearance from former Celtic player Beram Kayal’s cross with 15 minutes left that condemned Scotland to their first competitive defeat since a 3-0 loss to England in November 2016.
The players – and McLeish – were subjected to some very audible booing from the 1500-strong Tartan Army contingent at the end.
The red card was harsh on Souttar, booked in the first half after over-stretching in a tackle attempt on Dabbur. Scotland’s ambitions needed to be suddenly downgraded.
From a position where they looked on course for the win that would have left them another victory away from sealing top position in the group they were reduced to hanging on for a point.
Tierney’s unfortunate own goal means they were denied even this. As against Slovenia in their last competitive away game, Scotland had cause to rue a poor second half in which goalkeeper Allan McGregor had to be at his very best.
The Rangers keeper seems to have been awarded No.1 status after being picked to start his second successive competitive game. He vindicated this decision with a string of confident stops.
In short, this could, perhaps should, have been a heavier defeat. It was sometimes bordering on shambolic in front of him.
The pick of McGregor’s saves was a stunning point-blank block from Dor Peretz’s first-half header from a corner. The Maccabi Tel Aviv player held his head in his hands.
His thoughts still seemed elsewhere when he allowed Steven Naismith to get in front of him as the striker sought to latch on to Andy Robertson’s chip into space in the box after 24 minutes.
Peretz nudged the Hearts forward in the back and the striker went flying as the ball bounced harmlessly out of play.
Often these incidents are ignored by referees. Not on this occasion. Polish referee Daniel Stefanski decided it was a penalty and pointed quickly to the spot.
Mulgrew, who saw his last effort for Scotland saved in a friendly against Hungary earlier this year, drove confidently to the keeper’s right and watched the net strain in that magical way.
The Blackburn Rovers player was replaced at half-time by Scott McKenna after picking up an injury, and his steadying influence and experience was missed.
Scotland had grown into the game after a slow start in front of surely one of the lowest crowds at one of their competitive games.
This was more a reflection on the hosts’ current state as opposed to Scotland’s place in the football firmament. Israel are currently at 94 in the Fifa rankings, 45 places behind Scotland.
It’s not very often Scotland are presented with such optimal conditions to win a competitive football match away from home.
Leading 1-0 at half-time, having rode their luck at times, Scotland knew seeing out another 45 minutes would leave them in pole position to qualify for the play-offs.
McLeish resisted the urge to change the team to accommodate James Forrest following his four-goal spree for Celtic against St Johnstone last weekend. But he did change the system.
Callum McGregor was pushed forward into what was a front three at times. McLeish had placed his trust in players who had helped him out of a hole against Albania last month by securing a critical victory.
Scotland certainly did not have it all their own way even in a first-half from which they emerged with a 1-0 lead.
Israel passed up a number of chances to equalise. Ben Sahar, the Hapoel Be’er Sheva striker, held off Andy Robertson before slamming a shot against McGregor’s right hand post.
The second half started similarly ominous before quickly turning ruinous for Scotland. Israel poured forward. The tricky winger Taleb Twatha drifted across the box before picking out Peretz with a neat angled pass.
The striker was the wrong side of Robertson and took a touch before slipping the ball into the far corner of the net just seven minutes after half-time.
Nine minutes later Scotland were really rocked back on their heels. Souttar was dispossessed by Dabbur and his flailing arm then hit his opponent in the face.
Dabbur made sure he made the most of the chance to put pressure on the referee to act. He did, brandishing first a yellow in Souttar’s face before showing him red.
Scotland were struggling to cope with the full complement of men on the field so were always likely to feel the loss of one of their number. McLeish moved Tierney inside and brought Robertson back to left-back in a flat back four.
Forrest was also brought on in the 67th minute. Tierney had not been enjoying a very happy evening but it took a significant turn for the worse when he flicked the ball past McGregor while attempting to clear Kayal’s cross.
Israel: Harush, Yeini, Tibi, Ben Haroush, Dasa, Peretz, Kayal (Einbinder 82), Tawatha (Atar 77), Natcho, Dabour, Sahar (Saba 45). Subs Not Used: Haimov, Kannadli, Dan Glazer, Habashi, Tzedek, Hemed, Micha, Awaed, Bitton.
Scotland: Allan McGregor, Mulgrew, Souttar, Robertson, O’Donnell, McDonald, McGinn, Tierney, Callum McGregor, Russell (Forrest 67), Naismith (McBurnie 76). Subs Not Used: Gordon, McLaughlin, Hendry, McKenna, Shinnie, Armstrong.
Referee: Daniel Stefanski (Poland).