After another drab performance in a major tournament qualifier, Max Ferguson examines just what went wrong this time out for Scotland in Moscow.
Scotland’s hopes for qualification to Euro 2020 via the traditional group stages were obliterated by Russia, who scored four times in the second half to heap even more misery onto Steve Clarke’s side.
Scotland were repeatedly pinned back by Russia during the first half, and for its duration it quickly became clear that for Scotland’s defence it became a case of when they concede, not if. Despite their fortune to go into the break with their clean sheet intact, the Russians finally opened the floodgates 10 minutes after the restart and Artem Dzyuba, all six feet and five inches of him, bullied Scotland’s defence repeatedly and earned himself a brace, adding to his impressive international tally of 23 goals in 39 appearances for Russia.
As Monaco’s Aleksandr Golovin seemingly could not be contained in any capacity and ran the show, stretching the Scotland defence who didn’t know whether to chase him or hold their position, which became a running theme of the match. At times, Scotland goalkeeper David Marshall looked visibly agitated at his side’s poor defensive decision making and positioning, but then again most Scotland fans probably felt the same way at the time.
Charlie Mulgrew in particular, himself six foot three, and by no means as slight as Jorge Campos, was at the mercy of Dzyuba for Russia’s opening goal. The Russian forward held Mulgrew off with ease to score, and frighteningly did it again for the second goal, this time beating two Scotland players in the air (Mulgrew again) all within the six-yard box before poking the ball past Marshall.
There is going down with a fight; losing a game but doing it nobly - snapping into tackles, pressuring the opposition and holding your defensive shape. Running, even. And yet Scotland offered none of this. They were repeatedly pulled out of shape by Golovin, who was being deployed as the 10 behind the T-34 tank that Artem Dzyuba resembled by the end of the match, steamrolling Charlie Mulgrew, and even hitting the bar from an audacious effort on Scotland’s right flank during the second half. As Dzyuba began setting up shop and seizing the means of Scotland’s defensive (or lack thereof) production, Scotland were all but dead and buried. They were constantly playing catch up in their own third of the pitch, running after Russian players and looking totally lost at times.
Dzyuba and Golovin, coupled with their comrades running in behind the Scottish defence were afforded the space and freedom of Moscow to do as they pleased and ultimately the score line reflects that. Time and again Scotland were scrambling back into shape, but were pulled apart on numerous occasions across the match.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Russia are an underrated side, having to compete with a totally dominant Belgium that boast a 100% record in group one, but this match is just a snapshot of how good they really are. They were unlucky to have been knocked out of their own World Cup by runners-up Croatia, with naturalised Russian Mario Fernandes scoring deep into extra time against the Croatians to take the game to penalties. Not to mention the fantastic result they secured by knocking out Spain, Russia surprised fans and pundits alike last summer.
The Russians have given Scotland (and Steve Clarke) a major headache, but perhaps a little over-optimistically, the Russians have also given Clarke and his side the rude awakening needed to change Scotland’s international tournament drought. The San Marino game on the 13th gives Scotland the chance to lick their wounds, and also for their forwards to gain some confidence in front of goal. Whilst Steve Clarke’s Scotland are lacking confidence, and fans are rightfully angry at the SFA’s decision to charge £27 for the home game against San Marino, they must go again and become greater than the sum of their parts.
With nothing to play for other than pride, Scotland do have a chance to rectify their abject qualification campaign because of their success in the UEFA Nations League. Scotland’s play-off opposition will be drawn on 22 November, and the play-offs take place in March of next year.
A limp performance and a night to forget for Scotland. Silver linings, however! England lost to the Czech Republic 2-1.