As flares went off at went end of Hampden Park, Scotland’s players lay slumped on the ground at the other. No nation, perhaps, is quite such a specialist in heroic failure, but there have been few quite as crushing as this. Scotland’s fate was sealed in the end by a last-minute goal from Robert Lewandowksi, bundled over the line from a foot to end the tie in a 2-2 draw. With that result, Scotland will not qualify for the European Championship. Poland will if it beats Ireland or draws 0-0 or 1-1 in Warsaw on Sunday, otherwise it goes into a play-off.
It’s eight years now since James McFadden’s famous winner against France, but it seemed it might have two superb goals on a key occasion to celebrate. The McFadden goal, ultimately, came to nothing as Scotland missed on out qualifying for Euro 2008. It seemed Shane Long’s goal for Ireland against Germany would scupper Scotland’s chances this time, leaving it needing Ireland to beat Poland in Warsaw to take third place and a play-off spot. But with the very last kick of the game, Lewandowski removed even that possibility.
This was not a Scotland performance that made much sense. The two goals were sensational, but it was as though it had concentrated all its quality into those two moments. For long stretches of the game, Poland looked the likelier side, smoother, calm in possession, and with the outstanding player in Robert Lewandowski, even if he had, the goals aside, a subdued night. But Scotland played with great heart and determination, fought desperately, and overcame the setback of conceding after three minutes.
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A Scottish tabloid had mocked up Lewandowksi in baby clothes before the game, mocking his complaints about a foul by Gordon Greer in the 2-2 draw on Warsaw last hear, a tempting of fate that always seemed likely to backfire. Sure enough, three minutes in, Poland broke, Arkadiusz Milik slipped a through-ball behind the Scotland back four and Lewandowski ran on to slot the ball under David Marshall, his 13th goal in his last five games for club and country. The 14t would be a killer.
From Scotland there was a lot of huff and puff, a couple of set-plays that brought the crowd to paroxysms of expectation, and not a lot of quality. Poland, by contrast, looked elegant in possession if not hugely threatening, Ajax’s Arkadiusz Milik a key figure just behind Lewandowski, playing with his head exaggeratedly raised so at times he resembled a meerkat, twitching and probing, always alert, a persistant menace. Jakub Blaszczykowski might have doubled the away side’s lead on 29 minutes, driving his shot across the face of goal after a flowing move had ended with Lewandowski angling the ball wide, but at that point the suspicion was that Poland was largely playing within itself, content in its lead and holding Scotland at arm’s length.
That miss from Blaszczykowski seemed to encourage Scotland, though, and for the final quarter-hour of the first half, it had the better of the game â although without ever doing too much to suggest it had the incisiveness to break through. There hadn’t been much in the way of class, but when there was, it was magnificent. James Forrest danced in from the left and, although his cut-back was probably aimed at Scott Brown, it fell for Ritchie. The ball was slightly behind the Bournemouth player, but that allowed him to hook his foot around it, sending a stunning shot arcing into the top corner. His volley against Sunderland earlier in the month had been special; given the occasion, this was probably even better.
Ritchie didn’t just equalise, though; he changed the whole tone of the game. It was a goal that made Poland doubt, and made Scotland believe that anything was possible. Seventeen minutes into the second half a Scottish counter found its way to Steven Naismith. He was challenged but the ball squirted to Fletcher, who swept it, dipping and curving over Lukasz Fabianski and into the top corner. He may not be Lewandowski, but the Sunderland striker has now scored two in his last two for club and country.
Fletcher could have made the game safe three minutes later but headed straight at Fabianksi, after which Hampden settled in for a nervous wait. A Grzegorz Krychowiak was beaten away by Marshall. And then came the unbelievable news from Dublin, a goal for Ireland against Germany that meant it was not quite so simple as simply despatching Gibraltar. Of all the ways it might fail, no one had considered that. A veil of disbelief dropped over the stadium.
Scotland looked to have held out. Kamil Grosicki headed a fine chance over. Marshall made a couple of useful blocks. And tdhen disbelief became despair. A free-kick scudded through the box, struck the post and rolled along the line. Long before it was poked over the line, the inevitability of Scotland’s doom was clear.