In the end all that Scotland could take from an exasperating evening was the tiniest of small mercies. An 89th-minute equaliser from James McArthur, glancing in a Grant Hanley flick-on, spared a defeat that would have made for an end when only at the beginning of a World Cup campaign. Yet, in the context of World Cup hopes, of ending the 20-year exile from major finals, the solitary point from a home game against a country ranked 117th in the world, might be the beginning of the end.
Gordon Strachan, and some of his players, maintained this was not a must-win encounter with only one round of Group F games contested. Highly questionable, but what was beyond question was that it was a game Strachan’s side could not afford to lose.
Not just because of the points but because of the fragile state of the country’s psyche at international level following repeated failure. Another failure causing deep scarring seemed on its way after Fiodor Cernych found the net on the hour after one of the few moves of genuine quality on the night. It was avoided by some “up-and-at-em” battling and, but for a goal-line clearance from the Lithuanians in added time, the win might have been nicked. But the disjointed performance did not merit that. And if repeated in the away trip to Slovakia on Tuesday, and at Wembley in a month, it is entirely possible that remaining in realistic contention for Russia 2018 could be on the line by the year’s end.
Scotland had half an hour to perform some sort of salvage operation. Leigh Griffiths was shoved on with 20 minutes remaining, James Forrest having curiously appeared for the one decent performer, Oliver Burke, just before the goal, but chances created, and there were a few, were of too often of the snatched variety before McArthur’s rescue.
Lithuania had lost in each one of their previous four visits to Hampden. On every occasion they had proved stifling opposition, prioritising containment and daring Scotland to tease openings from cluttered areas. Yet, the fact that they demonstrated enterprise in the 2-2 draw at home to Slovenia in the opening round of matches suggested they may mix enterprise with their attrition.
In parts they did, with two quick bookings for pretty unceremonious challenges – Egidijus Vaitkunas appearing to use an elbow on Andrew Robertson and Mantas Kuklys for scything down Robert Snodgrass – sandwiching a couple of breaks that had the home supporters sucking deeply on the warm night air.
Scotland struggled for rhythm, but they did look the more considered side, and did cause their visitors occasional problems; just not enough it felt. That is always the frustration when an early goal is not conjured up.
If Hearts defender Callum Paterson had not pushed a header wide from a Matt Ritchie free-kick after 14 minutes when in a prime central area, or had Chris Martin directed a Snodgrass diagonal cross into the goal, instead of sliding it across it with goakkeeper Ernestas Setkus prone, it could have been different.
Scotland were largely ponderous, though not on the odd occasion Burke barrelled down the right flank with real menace. Nine minutes before the break he tumbled in the box after a nudge from Edvinas Girdvainis. Referee Toby Steeler was unmoved by Scottish appeals, though he did have words with the £15 million Leipzig teenager.
The inauspicious nature of the proceedings continued with the appearance of McArthur as a substitute after the break. There was no ill-will towards the Crystal Palace midfielder earning his 25th cap, but it was just the fact that he did so with injury depriving captain Darren Fletcher of seeing out his 75th.
You wondered if it was destined to be one of those nights, an impression that strengthened when Martin expertly met a Robertson cross only to flash a header just past the left-hand post. The disaster felt in keeping with what had gone before with a goal that, to their credit, Lithuania crafted superbly well. With Robertson caught upfield, Cernych played the ball into Vykintas Slivka at the edge of the area. He held off Hanley and played a return that found the advancing Cernych with an unimpeded sighting at goal that he seized on to produce lethal driving finish from yards. Ultimately, it could yet prove to be a finish in so many ways.