Scotland fans weren’t asking for too much last night, they weren’t expecting a goals avalanche or some tiki-taka themed football. Just a reason or two to look to the future and say “well maybe it’s not that bad”. Perhaps it wasn’t the fixture to look for it, after all most people had derided the fixture in some shape way or form over the last week. It was a waste of time to take on a minnow, what’s the point of picking the old guard, and then conversely when a clutch of those first choices threw a sickie, what’s the point of picking guys like Shinnie, Barr and Kelly?
A friendly against Luxembourg certainly is a waste of time if you use it simply to play the same old players in the same old way. The only mystery about this match is how it took a raft of call offs for interim manager Billy Stark to call up the top goal scorer in the SPL, Leigh Griffiths and one of the few success stories from Scotland’s opening 2 fixtures in their abominable World Cup campaign, Paul Dixon.
Whilst it’s obviously hard to get excited about a friendly of this stature, they’re the ideal testing ground for untried players. An opportunity for them to show that they wont be weighed down too heavily by donning the Scotland jersey. It was also a chance for Stark to show his credentials for the position, if indeed he’s interested. Although if he is then his enthusiasm for the role may well have dipped by the end of a difficult night in the Stade Josy Barthel.
The spate of call offs had given the game a similar feeling to one of Craig Brown’s final matches in charge of Scotland in 2001, a 1-1 draw in Poland where Brown was forced into giving 7 players their international debuts. For 3 players, Andy McLaren, Charlie Miller and John O’Neill it would be their only cap, but for 1 player in particular it was the start of a long Scotland career.
Kenny Miller came off the bench in the Zawisza Stadion that night for his first Scotland appearance, but his latest start in Luxembourg seemed to cause a large dose of angst amongst the Scotland support. A glance at any social network site would suggest that the only way Miller will get any support online is if his own mother opened up a Twitter account. In his defence though, considering the paucity of options that Stark was presented with, especially with Commons ruled out through injury, his presence in an extremely inexperienced side was perfectly understandable.
He started alongside Blackburn striker Jordan Rhodes in a 2 man attack that was supported either side by Shinnie, the first Inverness Caledonian Thistle player to win a cap, and Steven Naismith. Mulgrew and Fletcher sat in the middle while Whittaker, Berra, Hanley and Dixon made up the back 4 in front of Blackpool keeper Matt Gilks.
Special mention must go at this point to the national anthems. Unfortunately the camera never showed who was performing them or indeed what instruments they were playing. At points during the Flower of Scotland it sounded like someone was blowing into something you’d find in a Christmas cracker, and as ever it was far too slow, with the fans finished with their vocal rendition long before the bands final toot.
The crowd was, as expected, sparse although the Scotland fans seemed in greater abundance than the home support, but despite the flat atmosphere the game started off reasonably encouragingly. Scotland attempted to play the ball about on a greasy surface that had players slipping and sliding everywhere. None more so than Naismith who was on his backside so much that you began to wonder if his boots had any studs in them whatsoever.
The early stages saw Fletcher dropping deep, taking the ball from the defence as much as possible, along side him Mulgrew was also diligently going about his business in midfield. Scotland’s first real chance though came from shambolic defending rather than good play. A forward pass from Naismith should have been bread and butter for Guy Blaise but his swipe at fresh air allowed Rhodes to race in on goal but he screwed his finish well wide of the left hand post.
He made amends just 2 minutes later though. The commentator may have said “it wasn’t a work of art” but actually it was a fine move that started with the goalkeeper and ended up involving 8 players. Dixon eventually received the ball after gallivanting down the left and put in a cross that should have been cleared, but instead rebounded to Rhodes who didn’t even seem to be facing the right way when he headed the ball against the post and beyond Joubert who could only flick it into the roof of the net.
It was 2 on 24 minutes and again it was Rhodes who applied the finish. Fletcher played the ball forward to the Blackburn striker who laid it off to Whittaker. His ball into the box found Shinnie who wriggled away from his man only to find his shot blocked by Joubert, Rhodes was on hand however to stroke the ball home. 2-0 at half time was probably as good as anyone had hoped.
If ever a game was there to rack up the goals then this was surely it. Owen Coyle and Peter Houston spoke at half time of international football being devoid of easy games but that just isn’t true, the fact that Israel have recently scored 9 goals in 2 games against Luxembourg proves it.
Houston’s description of the Scots’ first half performance as being excellent was also several shades away from the truth. Luxembourg had chances, with Sion player Mario Mutsch in particular causing Hanley and Berra problems while Lewek had 2 decent opportunities that he spurned.
As a result it wasn’t completely against the run of play when the home side got their goal, their first ever against Scotland. Liam Kelly was a half time substitute for Charlie Mulgrew, and his first involvement as a Scotland player was to clatter danger man Mutsch after less than a minute on the park, just 25 yards from goal. Gilks may have spent an age lining up his wall but Lars Gerson still managed to curl it perfectly over the blockade and into the right hand corner. After that, well, the less said about the second half the better.
What unfolded was one of the most lamentable, dishevelled and downright turgid 45 minutes of football that anyone could ever have the misfortune to sit through. It was notable only for how grimly Scotland clung onto their lead, a lead that was almost frittered away when Gilks nervously fluffed a Stefano Bensi header around the post.
As far as Scotland were concerned they reverted back to a fairly familiar and horrible type. Fletcher stopped becoming an outlet, instead a hoof up the park became the norm to a front pairing that got minimal service. Hanley and Berra looked an extremely uncomfortable centre half duo, encapsulated at one point by Grant Hanley falling into an oddly placed sand pit.
Whittaker looked off the pace at right back and did little to suggest he would be a better alternative to the out of form/not very good (delete as applicable) Alan Hutton. Perhaps a fit Phil Bardsley could fill that position for the foreseeable future.
Leigh Griffiths came on to win his first cap but other than a mazy run and blocked effort he saw little of the ball while Murray Davidson became St Johnstone’s first Scotland representative in 80 years with a late appearance.
The final whistle may have brought the win but anyone hoping for Scotland to show a few green shoots of recovery would have been sorely disappointed.
Post match reaction:
Caretaker manager Billy Stark praised the result but not the performance. (The Guardian)
“We won and that’s the important thing. On the back of that you hope we have a scintillating performance. We would concede it wasn’t quite that but the first half we were comfortable and we created some chances.”
Journalist Roddy Forsyth was faint in his praise for the win, particularly the defensive frailties that at times saw Scotland riding their luck. (The Telegraph)
“The result could not mask the fact that the Scots’ defence was brittle under pressure and a strong finish by the hosts almost earned them a draw.”
(Photo credit: Tom Brogan via Flickr)