REVIEW: Perfect Penalties Propel Scotland to Playoff Final
Euro 2020 Playoff Semi-Final: Scotland 0-0 Israel (Scotland win 5-3 on penalties)
Was last night a perfect performance? Of course not. Was the outcome something to savour? You’d better believe it was.
Scotland have spent 22 years peering through the window of International tournaments, not invited inside. That exile has meant the navy-blue shirts seem to wear heavier on the backs of our players every year.
Since 1998, a hall mark of Scotland’s boulevard of broken dreams has been discarded points against teams we are expected to beat. Our history is littered with draws and losses to Europe’s lesser names; the Faroe Islands, Lithuania, Macedonia, Belarus, Georgia and Kazakhstan to name a few.
Last night, Scotland took on Israel in a Euro 2020 Playoff Semi-Final. Israel were ranked more than 40 places below Scotland.
If this was a post-mortem article, it wouldn’t be hard to find cause of death. The Covid pandemic robbed us of the home advantage of a capacity crowd. Stuart Armstrong testing positive led to his withdrawal, along with close contacts Ryan Christie and Kieran Tierney the day before the game. Injury neglected Steve Clarke of the services of Scott McKenna, Liam Palmer and Oli Burke. Covid protocols meant Clarke was unable to call up any last-minute replacements.
Scotland’s drab home draw with Israel in the Nations League last month could have bred anxiety within the group.
This is exactly the type of match Scotland have failed to win in the past. When everything is expected, when hopes are raised, Scotland have fallen short. Last night they didn’t.
While it wasn’t pretty, Scotland put on a solid defensive performance, limiting Israel to one clear cut chance and one shot on target over 120 minutes, while fashioning a couple of their own. Had Scott McTominay or Liam Cooper steered their headers from corners into the back of the net, perhaps the pressure cooker of a penalty shootout could have been avoided.
In the end, Scotland produced five perfect penalties, coupled with a fantastic early stop from David Marshall to seal progression to November’s Playoff Final.
For a country starved of success on the international stage, if you think I’m not going to enjoy a penalty shootout win to continue a six-game unbeaten run, you’re dead wrong.
Here are a couple more talking points as Scotland move 90 minutes from history:
Nevertheless, he persisted
In the build-up to the game, a lot of the talk surrounded the shape Steve Clarke would use. In last month’s Nations League games, Clarke threw a curve ball by implementing a three at the back system, with Manchester United’s Scott McTominay in an unfamiliar position at right sided centre back.
Last night Clarke persisted, taking a safety-first approach to the game. McTominay lined up alongside Leeds United captain Liam Cooper and Motherwell’s Declan Gallagher. Declan’s Motherwell team-mate Stephen O’Donnell came in at right wing back.
With a lack of natural width in the team, Clarke picked two central strikers, pairing Lyndon Dykes and Oli McBurnie. Both put in a very impressive shift up front, plugging away and trying to play off one another. This is a partnership I would like to see more of for Scotland.
Penalties? Completed it mate.
As the game wore on, there seemed to be an air of inevitability of the coming penalty shoot-out. Clear cut chances were incredibly hard to come by. Both teams worked hard but seemed to run out of steam as extra time came and went.
Scotland fans of all ages will have watched their English counterparts agonise over penalty shootouts down the years. Scotland’s players approached it nervelessly and (with one minor exception), flawless execution.
John McGinn took the responsibility of taking the first spot kick and just about squirmed his shot under Ofir Marciano. David Marshall then saved impressively from Israel’s danger man Zahavi.
From there, Callum McGregor, Scott McTominay and Lawrence Shankland scored calmly, leaving the deciding penalty to Norwich City’s Kenny McLean. Well, you know what happened next…
Reasons to be Cheerful
When the pressure was high, when circumstances conspired against us, Scotland came together, stayed calm in the eye of the storm, and won. It wasn’t pretty, but I cannot express how little that concerns me.
All going well, Steve Clarke’s squad will be bolstered by the return of the key players he wasn’t permitted this time round. Armstrong, Christie, Tierney, Burke, McKenna, Palmer and Forrest will all make compelling cases to start in Belgrade.
Ryan Fraser will hopefully get more game time for Newcastle United as he builds his match sharpness. He provided a completely different attacking threat in the second half and some much-needed width to the team.
Scotland will travel to Belgrade to play Serbia on Thursday 12 November 2020. Our date with destiny was sealed after Serbia overcame Norway 2-1 after extra time.
Serbia are a very good side. Scotland will come into the Playoff Final as underdogs. However, one of the most intimidating aspects of travelling to Serbia is the incredibly hostile atmosphere their supporters create. It looks like Covid will mean their stadium is at a very reduced capacity, if not completely empty.
These are concerns for another day. For now, let’s bask for a moment in the success of winning the first penalty shootout in the national team’s history.
After the high of last night a return to Nations League duty on Sunday (19:45), as Scotland welcome Slovakia. Slovakia will arrive at Hampden on a high, having also progressed through their Nations League Playoff Semi-Final on penalties, eliminating the Republic of Ireland.
Then, to close an unprecedented home triple header, the Czech Republic will arrive on Wednesday night to Hampden (19:45), looking to avenge the defeat of their B-team to Scotland last month.
Media reports have suggested that Aberdeen's Ross McCrorie and Hibernian's Paul McGinn will be drafted into the squad to replace some of the players who have pulled out.
A reminder, in this year’s Nations League, only the group winners will be eligible for a Playoff Place for World Cup 2022 if required. As it stands, that would be us, and on current form who’s to say it won’t be?