SCOTLAND go into Fridays match with Lithuania knowing that their World Cup hopes hangs firmly in the balance.
A diabolical start to the campaign, including a very fortunate draw between the two at Hampden, means that Gordon Strachan’s men are playing catchup in the group as they aim to get in the playoff position in their last throw of the dice to get to the finals in Russia.
Strachan has come under more scrutiny recently with his latest squad selections naming several players not playing games, crucially these are mainly in our problem positions of central defence and right back.
It’s a far cry from when we played Lithuania ten years ago in the Euro 2008 qualifier at Hampden!
Scotland were still very much in the mix with World Cup finalists Italy and France for a place at the finals in Austria and Switzerland, with this match being the first of a double header with the trip to Paris four days later.
Alex McLeish was in charge and had boasted an impressive four wins from his first five matches going into the game. He made an interesting team selection with Jay McEveley starting at left back to deputise for the injured Gary Naysmith, whilst Gary O’Connor and Kris Boyd selected up front ahead of talisman James McFadden.
Scotland dominated the first half and deservedly took the lead when Darren Fletcher swung in a quickly taken free kick and it was glanced home by Boyd. The incident happened that quickly that McLeish missed the goal as he was taking notes at the time!
It wouldn’t be Scotland if they didn’t put us through the mill at some point, and they didn’t start the second half well as the Lithuanians grew into the game, culminating in their equaliser following a controversial penalty award. Hearts winger Salius Mikoliunas became Public Enemy No.1 by throwing himself onto the ground in front of Fletcher to con the referee into awarding a penalty. To be fair to the referee, all he could see was Fletcher’s outstretched leg, therefore it was understandable why he gave the decision as it was unbeknown to him that other tv cameras caught Mikoliunas out. Tomas Danilevicus converted the spot kick to rub salt into the wound.
That incident could’ve had a negative effect on the team but, to their credit, Scotland rallied to dominate again as they searched for the winner – and they got that all important goal 13 minutes from time, thanks to an inspired substitution and some quick thinking. At a Scotland corner, Scotland introduced Craig Beattie, the hero in the previous home game against Georgia, and Shaun Maloney. The latter headed straight to the corner of the box to receive the ball from Fletcher’s corner and drilled it into the box, where it was then met by the knee of Stephen McManus to net his first Scotland goal.
You could hear the relief around the stadium at that moment, knowing this was a must win game with the trip to France around the corner. Although there was 13 minutes to play, you sensed that the goal would be enough to secure three points.
Rather than hang on, however, the Scots added a third six minutes later. The other substitute, James McFadden, picked the ball up on the right hand side, cut in on his favoured left foot and curled the ball beautifully into the top right hand corner of the Lithuanian net.
It was now party time for the Scotland fans inside sun-kissed Hampden as the team clinched another three valuable points towards bid to reach their first finals in a decade, and increase the feel-good factor amongst the national team at that point.
A few days later, the fans travelled in their huge numbers to Paris full of optimism after that result – and the rest is history!
Tomorrow nights match presents a different type of pressure as we need victory to maintain any hopes we have of overhauling both Slovakia and Slovenia into the playoff spot, as opposed to battling with the 2006 World Cup Finalists for automatic qualification.
Gordon Strachan’s squad may not have the quality that Alex McLeish had at his disposal, especially in central defence, but he knows that a similar type of performance is required if they are to pull off the miracle comeback after the horror start to the campaign.