And so Scotland become the first team in Europe to be officially knocked out of the World Cup. Due to the vagaries of the group stages, minnows like the Faroe Islands still have a mathematical chance of qualifying while the Tartan Army are already planning their holidays for anywhere but Brazil next summer. It’s a technicality of course and the Faroes among many others will join the Scots on the statistical scrapheap before too long, but nevertheless it’s not exactly what new manager Gordon Strachan wanted as the first meaningful event of his tenure.
Qualification was a forlorn hope before he was even in post. The early stages of the campaign under Craig Levein sunk the nation’s qualification hopes deeper than Atlantis and it’s a shame that Strachan has to be the one to have his name associated with the confirmation of non-qualification. Equally though, the new boss can’t be fully excused for the events of the last few days because performances have been, frankly, dismal.
Aside from the brief rally that led to the opening goal towards the end of the first half against Wales, Scotland were a shambles last Friday, and Tuesday night in Novi Sad was no different. Everything about the game was depressing, even before kick-off. Rafts of empty seats and a pitch that you wouldn’t let a pub team play on turned out to be an apt setting for a game that the word drab could’ve been invented for. As in the Wales game, Scotland almost conceded in the opening seconds and were under pressure for much of the first half. The highlight of the first period from a Scottish point of view was the sides went in goalless at the break, but that wasn’t to last very long. Naismith’s belter was ruled out for offside and ten minutes later it all fell apart with two quickfire Serbian goals. From then on the writing was on the wall and there was a desperately familiar feeling to proceedings. Again, Scotland proved that they can’t defend for toffee. It gets pretty tedious repeatedly slagging off the likes of Gary Caldwell but it’ll keep happening until Strachan unearths a better option. Scots fans will be urging him to check ancestry and birth certificates far and wide because this is a problem that needs fixing urgently.
The truth is that Scotland have problems in every area but at least the new coach is trying to solve them. Strachan’s already had some bad press following the Welsh defeat and will doubtless get more for Tuesday’s lack-lustre performance but it’d be foolish and premature to press the panic button again so soon. In some ways, the performance looked worse than it was. Serbia won comfortably partly because Scotland were rubbish, but also in part because Scotland tried to play - they’re just not very good at it yet. Craig Levein’s Scotland team might just have nicked a point off Wales and a got single-goal defeat, maybe even a dour goalless draw, in Serbia. Who knows? But would we really be any further forward? We’d still be technically in with a shout but realisitcally there’d be as much chance of qualifying as of Kenny Miller getting a shock transfer to Barcelona, and nothing would have changed. In some ways, Scotland are further forward. They’ve looked at a few new players; in fact George Boyd and Liam Bridcutt were among the few who got pass-marks in Serbia. With every game, the players learn (albeit the hard way) about how Gordon Strachan wants them to play and what he expects of them. The manager has a delicate balance to strike though. It seems he’s using the qualifying games to juggle personnel and formations, but every defeat also damages the nation’s co-efficient making future qualification groups even more of an uphill struggle.
It’s been a baptism of fire for the fiery coach but many Scotland fans still trust the wee man despite the poor start. His predecessor looked hopelessly lost with seemingly no idea what he was doing. Strachan is at least a man with a plan. Gord only knows what it is, but he’s a shrewd enough operator and he’ll know what direction he wants to take the team. There is some solace to be found in that, even if it might take a long time.