SCOTLAND should be immune to such agonies by now. But this was a fresh hell. This was perhaps the cruellest of all cuts. A night bookended by Robert Lewandowski goals will go straight to the top of the list of torturous episodes endured by the Tartan Army.
Scotland will not be at Euro 2016. They will look on as their near neighbours frolic in France. Their fate was sealed by Lewandowski’s second strike of the night and in time added on, after Grzegorz Krychowiak’s free-kick had been missed by everyone before bashing back off a post.
But because of Ireland’s unlikely win over Germany, the world champions, Gordon Strachan’s side were already reliant on the Irish winning in Poland on Sunday, despite a thrilling comeback from 1-0 down to lead 2-1 at Hampden last night.
Lewandowski’s late, late equaliser – it was the last kick of the game – put Scotland out of their misery that would likely have entailed from hoping things fell into place on the last day of the qualifying group. Despite Strachan’s insistence that Scotland’s fate would only become clear after the last round of games, they are already out. His own future is now top of the agenda.
A pair of unlikely, perhaps unfairly, traduced players had been set to emerge as heroes for Scotland – and their efforts should still be applauded. Steven Fletcher, with only his fifth international strike in 24 caps, scored a memorable goal to give Scotland the lead after 62 minutes.
A dismaying twist of fate in Dublin, where Shane Long scored to give Ireland the lead against the world champions, looked likely to keep Strachan’s side on tenterhooks for another few days. But Lewandowski’s intervention robbed them and the Tartan Army of even that blessing.
The fans did not know whether to laugh or cry at the end. Matt Ritchie had earlier struck an equally magnificent equaliser after Lewandowski’s obligatory goal appeared to hint at this being a straightforward form of disappointment for Scotland.
Ritchie and Steven Fletcher are two players who have firmly divided opinion. Fletcher, some argued, has delivered too few times to deserve his place as first-choice striker. Ritchie, meanwhile, had done too little to earn a starting place on such a vital night. Both these opinions now have reason to be revised.
A rousing rendition of Flower of Scotland from a lone piper standing on the roof of the west stand at Hampden Park seemed to strike the right note. But if Scots were stirred by this performance they were left shaken only minutes later. Lewandowski barely had to check his stride as he latched on to a through ball from Arkadiusz Milik to score just the latest in a remarkable splurge of goals. Despite kicking off, Scotland had managed the calamitous feat of conceding a goal within three minutes. It was almost a masterpiece of wretchedness. But to Scotland’s great credit they recovered.
Strachan was true to his pledge to be adventurous. He vowed to ask questions of Poland rather than sit back and wait for the chance to strike. But the early goal unsettled Scotland to the extent that they took fully 20 minutes to steady themselves.
Strachan sprung a surprise by picking both James Forrest and Ritchie on the flanks. But there was little either could do when not given the ball. Ritchie came more into the proceedings as the half wore on but over-hit crosses and poorly struck shots betrayed his initial nerves.
He was, though, a willing outlet. Eventually, he would become a lot more than just that.
Poland had stamped their authority on the proceedings on and off the park. Polish fans made themselves at home at Hampden in the manner Scottish fans tend to do at venues abroad. But rarely are the travelling Scots allowed to feel as comfortable as the Polish visitors were last night for large parts of the opening half. A contest did eventually break-out; a riveting one at that. At first the Polish supporters mocked the home fans for making such minimal noise. All the ingredients for a humiliation were being prepared. Out-sung and out-played. But then the Scottish fans were within their rights to protest they had nothing to sing about until Ritchie changed the complexion of the night with one swish of his left foot. Until then, Poland looked firmly in command. They were bullying Scotland. Maciej Rybus was booked for a cynical foul on Steven Naismith. The referee had allowed play to continue but Ritchie’s cross floated over Steven Fletcher and was met only by groans from the fretting home support.
They had already had cause to hold their breath as Jakub Blaszczykowski took aim after Kamil Grosicki’s cut-back.
Fortunately, his shot met only fresh air.
Scotland seemed to take some heart from still being within a goal of Poland as half-time neared. But few expected such a sweetly struck equaliser. Ritchie emerged from his funk to light up the night in wondrous style.
Strachan’s decision to play both Forrest and Ritchie was vindicated as the former wriggled free on the left to feed the latter. But with the pass slightly behind him, there was still much for Ritchie to do as he wrapped his left foot around the ball and propelled it past Lukasz Fabianski from 25 yards. The strike was plied with further distinction by being the last kick of the half but was nearly robbed of significance seconds after the re-start.
Lewandowski again found time on the edge of the box but his effort was well saved by David Marshall, who atoned for being beaten at his near post so early in the game. Steven Fletcher suddenly ensured Scotland were suddenly contenders for a play-off place again. Ritchie was again involved after taking a pass from Darren Fletcher.
Some welcome fortune came Scotland’s way as he stumbled under a challenge from Grosici. The ball squirmed free and Steven Fletcher did not think twice about hitting a curling, first-time effort from the corner of the box into the top corner. If anything, it was even more spectacular than Ritchie’s earlier goal.
But, while Scotland had taken the lead, they could not influence events elsewhere, nor could they stop Lewandowski sliding in to seal their fate in the fourth minute of injury time.
Scotland: Marshall, Hutton, R Martin, Hanley, Whittaker, Forrest (Dorrans 84), Brown, D Fletcher (McArthur 74), Ritchie, Naismith (Maloney 69), S Fletcher.
Subs not used: Gordon, Robertson, Greer, Berra, Russell, Griffiths, C Martin, Rhodes, McGregor.
Poland: Fabianski, Piszczek, Pazdan, Glik, Rybus (Wawrzyniak 71), Grosicki, Krychowiak, Maczynski, Milik, Blaszczykowski (Olkowski 83), Lewandowski.
Subs not used: Szczesny, Cionek, Jedrzejczyk, Szukala, Jodlowiec, Linetty, Mila, Sobiech, Borysiuk, Boruc.