Date: 9th October 2020
A review of Thursday night’s “drama” from Ben Ramage, Reach Plc Sports Journalist:
Tortuous. Drawn-out. Painful to watch.
Did we really expect a Scotland play-off semi-final was ever going to be any other way?
Especially with manager Steve Clarke at the helm, sticking with his 3-5-2 formation despite a number of key defenders dropping like flies from the squad in the build-up to the crunch Israel tie.
But let’s remember why Clarke was given the job in the first place. While previous managers had been more expansive and produced more exciting football on the pitch, we still weren’t getting our hands on the holy grail of a major tournament.
Yes our football was even more uninspiring and one-dimensional than usual on Thursday night, but it got the job done. And that’s exactly why Clarke was entrusted with the Scotland hotseat.
And with the Scots now unbeaten in six games and with a play-off final berth secured, it’s harsh to level too much criticism at the former West Brom and Kilmarnock coach.
Thursday night’s match was the country’s biggest in over a decade, and the significance of the tie would surely have been felt by every single Scotland player as they lined up for the anthems at an eerily quiet and empty Hampden Park.
The lack of the Tartan Army faithful played right into Israel’s hands, with home advantage all but wiped out – particularly when it came to the dreaded penalty shoot-out.
With millions of beady and expectant eyes on screens around Scotland, the UK and Europe, it was always going to be a tense and nervous affair for the boys in Dark Blue.
While Israel’s numerous attacking threats zipped the ball around the pitch, Scotland’s midfielders looked totally bereft of ideas and creativity and constantly took the safe option back to the defence.
Ryan Jack and Callum McGregor again failed to bring their Old Firm form to the international party, with even Super John McGinn far from his best.
Andy Robertson was also nowhere near the level we know he can be having seen him lift the Champions League and Premier League trophies in recent years with Liverpool. He was shackled and beaten by Vitesse Arnhem right-back Eli Dasa all night long, with the armband continuing to look more of a hindrance to the superstar’s performances than a boost.
While on paper it looked ambitious to pair Lyndon Dykes with Oli McBurnie up front, the two strikers were constantly cut adrift with crosses far and few between until Newcastle United winger Ryan Fraser came on to finally give the Scots some width.
Yes Scott McTominay should have had us in front just before half-time after butchering a glorious headed chance, but all in all Israel were schooling us technically and should have killed us off over 120 minutes.
The fact they didn’t gave me that little hint of confidence going into the penalty shootout. Generally the team that deserved to win the game goes on to lose the spot kicks, and so it proved with David Marshall’s save on the first crucial in knocking the stuffing out of the visitors.
While the football had been woeful most of the night from a Scotland perspective, the penalties couldn’t have been much better.
Yes McGinn was fortunate to see his squeeze under Ofir Marciano’s arm after the Hibs keeper guessed the right way, but the final four were expertly dispatched under the most extreme pressure.
The takers deserve huge credit for putting us on the brink of major qualification for the first time in 23 years.
Let’s not kid ourselves on though and imagine we won’t need the same, if not a greater, amount of luck to get past Serbia in the final.
The Serbs have a host of talented players, including Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic , Real Madrid’s Luca Jovic and Ajax skipper Dusan Tadic to name just a few.
What we do know is that these are exactly the kinds of game’s Clarke was brought in for. He’s made a career out of getting the best out of groups of players and taking down teams on paper that he shouldn’t have.
With creative talents Ryan Christie, Stuart Armstrong and Kieran Tierney all available once again come next month, let’s dream that this time we can finally make it matter when it counts most.
Bring on the Serbs. It can be another painful watch as long as it produces a glorious finish.
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