When Scotland manager Gordon Strachan and his players arrived at Hampden for their clash with second placed Slovenia, who had collected eight points from their opening four games, the pressure was on. Prior to the match, Strachan claimed that this game was a ‘must-win’ and that Scotland’s chances of qualifying for the Fifa World Cup in Russia in 2018 hinged on Scotland leaving Hampden with three points.
Many Scotland fans would have been apprehensive prior to the game following their 1-1 draw with Canada, ranked 117th in the Fifa World rankings, only four days before. Not only was it a shockingly poor result for the national team but the display did not give anything for the fans to get excited about either. A largely laboured performance, it was only salvaged by a miss hit volley by Tom Cairney deflecting off Steven Naismith into the Canada net, despite Canada having taken a surprising lead through ex-Rangers man Fraser Aird. Strachan, however, defended the result claiming that he “would much rather have learned their problems tonight instead of against Slovenia on Sunday.”
He seemed justified. A much changed Scotland side started brightly winning several corners in the opening few minutes and centre-back Russell Martin thought that he had given Scotland the lead with a fine header from a Robert Snodgrass corner. The referee adjudged that he had pushed the defender in the box but this did not deter the Scottish onslaught on the Slovenian goal as James Morrison came close with a half-volley from the edge of the box.
Leigh Griffiths – who often found himself being overlooked for Scotland – started the match as the lone striker and caused problems for the Slovenian defence from the get-go. He did miss a glorious opportunity, however: hitting the bar in front of an open goal, much to the disbelief of the 25,000 inside Hampden. Adding to this, when he hit the post just a minute later, you would have thought that it was just going to be one of those days.
The second half was a much more even affair, but Craig Gordon only had one save to make from Roman Bezjak and it appeared the Slovenians had come to Glasgow with the intention of not losing, instead of winning. Ikechi Anya came on and had the opportunity to give Scotland the lead with his first touch but Atlético Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak denied him with a good block.
With 85 minutes gone, Gordon Strachan played his final card by bringing on on-loan Fulham striker Chris Martin to get the goal that would get Scotland’s campaign back on track. Martin was surprisingly greeted with boos from sections of the Scotland support – the first Scotland player to be booed since then-Rangers player Ian Black against Australia in 2012. However, Martin hit back at those critics with two minutes of normal time remaining by finally finding Scotland’s breakthrough, slotting the ball in off the post after a great pass by debutant Stuart Armstrong. The relief throughout Hampden could not be done justice through the television cameras.
When the full-time whistle went, it was confirmation that Scotland’s campaign was very much back on track as they moved to within two points of second place in Group F. Scotland can take many positives not only from the result but from both the team and the individual performances itself. Armstrong pulled the strings all night in midfield in his first game for his country and assisted the winning goal, and Celtic’s Kieran Tierney was exceptional all evening, hardly putting a foot wrong. Griffiths caused real problems and has firmly put his name into the hat for a starting spot against England at Hampden.
It is rare that Scotland deliver in must-win situations, but they must realise that every game is a must-win if they are to qualify for Russia in 2018 – starting with slaying England in June.
Image courtesy of Daniel0685 @flickr