Scotland’s hopes of earning automatic qualification for Euro 2020 dangle by a thread after Russia came from behind to win at Hampden.
John McGinn gave Steve Clarke’s side the lead, but slack defending allowed Artem Dzyuba to strike before Stephen O’Donnell’s own goal put Russia ahead.
Scotland sit six points adrift of the Russians in fourth with five games to play and the top two qualifying from the group. They host Belgium, the top ranked team in the world, in Glasgow on Monday.
Barring an unlikely sequence of results, Scotland’s qualification hopes will now rest on the Nations League play-offs, with a semi-final place already secured.
This was a first competitive home defeat since then-world champions Germany triumphed 3-2 four years ago. After a bright start, Scotland faded badly and could have lost more heavily, with the Russians hitting the woodwork twice and having an effort hacked off the line.
‘Outplayed and outclassed’
It began with Scotland on the attack and ended with Scotland on the attack – it was the big bit in the middle that was the problem.
Long before the final whistle you lost count of the amount of times Scotland gave the ball away and made their lives murderously difficult in the process. Long before the final whistle you lost count of the number of opportunities Russia failed to take in their pursuit of a game-clinching third goal.
In the last reckoning, they didn’t need that third. Two did the job. Two was enough to effectively kill off any hope Scotland may have had of getting in the shake-up in this group. After the early boon of goal, Scotland were thoroughly outplayed and outclassed.
Briefly, there was hope. Given the plague that descended on Scotland’s centre-halves – four of them going down injured in the build-up to this critical qualifier – a debut was given to Leeds United captain Liam Cooper.
At the other end, Clarke went with Oli McBurnie, a player who turned with the intensity of a man who had a whole lot to prove, which is what exactly what he is, regardless of the eye-watering sum that Sheffield United splashed out for him in the summer.
McBurnie had looked leaden and unthreatening in his previous appearances for his country, but he played a big part in what was a quick start by Scotland. Even before the opening goal, they’d caused Russia some bother, O’Donnell hooking an effort on goal from close range only for Guilherme to get his body in the way to block it.
The goal came in the 11th minute and, though Hampden had vast unoccupied sections, the place still made a fair old racket when McGinn scored. Unsurprisingly it all started with a delivery from the left from Ryan Fraser, his cross being spilled by Guilherme and falling to McGinn, who took full advantage of a gift of a chance.
Guilherme was undoubtedly unnerved by McBurnie’s presence when the ball was in the air from Fraser, the striker failing to make contact but succeeding in distracting the goalkeeper. McBurnie looked hungry and effective in those early minutes.
It was a bright and encouraging start from the Scots, but as the half wore on the more Russia came into it. They were helped by a growing hesitancy and anxiety from the home team. That accuracy and energy they had early on soon evaporated. They couldn’t keep the ball, couldn’t bring any composure to their play. Misplaced pass followed misplaced pass. Trouble was on its way.
It arrived when Scotland once again gave away possession and put pressure on themselves. To add to the error count, in attempting to clear from Aleksandr Golovin, Robertson inadvertently helped it on to Dzyuba. The big striker with the prolific record had the time and space he needed to slam his shot past David Marshall.
It was his 21st goal in 37 games for his country. What Scotland would give for a goal machine like the Zenit lighthouse.
Russia took total control of it after that, helped along their merry way by Scotland’s desperate inability to hold on to the ball. The number of times they lost it needlessly and sent Russia running at them was remarkable.
Early in the second half they really started to pepper Scotland’s goal. Charlie Mulgrew had to charge down a piledriver from Golovin. Two minutes later, Golovin broke free but sliced his shot wide. Scotland’s wastefulness wasn’t just asking to be punished, it was practically begging for it.
On the hour, they got what was coming. This time it was Fraser who ceded possession. Aleksei Ionov picked it up, played a gorgeous ball in behind Cooper to Golovin, who squared it towards the veteran Yuri Zhirkov. The Russian got the first touch, but O’Donnell sliding in an attempt to avert danger, got the last, fateful touch.
Whoever is credited with the goal hardly matters. Russia had the lead and they never really looked like giving it up despite a late flurry by the Scots.
The only wonder was that they didn’t add to it. Mario Fernandes forced a save from Marshall, Magomed Ozdoev’s deflected shot hit a post, Zhirkov’s effort had to be pushed away by the Scotland goalkeeper in another Russian wave.
Scotland pushed hard for an equaliser but didn’t get it and didn’t deserve to get it together. Belgium next on Monday. Life doesn’t get any easier for Clarke and his players.
Man of the match – Aleksandr Golovin
Golovin ran amok. He was on a different level to anybody in blue, buzzing about, picking up loose balls and using his intelligence and vision to cause no end of terror. A world-class player.
- Defeat ended Scotland’s run of nine competitive home games without a loss
- It’s the first time they have lost at home after taking the lead since March 2013, when they lost 2-1 to Wales
- Scotland have scored in 15 successive competitive home games; their longest run since a streak of 18 between February 1993 and October 1999
- Russia have won four consecutive games for the first time since November 2015 (five in a row)
- No player has been directly involved in more goals in Euro 2020 qualifying than Russia’s Artem Dzyuba (six goals, two assists)
- Aston Villa and Scotland midfielder John McGinn has been directly involved in three goals in five games for club and country this season (two goals, one assist)