Scotland’s 1-0 victory over Ireland on Friday, secured through Shaun Maloney’s fine curling finish with 16 minutes remaining, lifted them level with the Republic of Ireland, joint third in Euro 2016 qualifying Group D. But that tells only a fraction of the story.
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This was a game Scotland simply couldn’t afford to lose if they were to have a realistic chance of claiming second place in the group (assuming Germany, which hammered Gibraltar, finish top). The pressure if anything was increased by news of Poland’s 4-0 win in Georgia earlier, which lifted them three points above the other three serious contenders for qualification, although the Poles must still play away at Germany, Scotland and Ireland.
This was also about parochial pride — Celtic honor — and about each side’s sense of self-esteem. This was a strange case of two footballing cultures, each that looks down on the other. Scotland has the more illustrious history; Ireland by far the better recent past.
In some ways the modern incarnations are very similar; both optimistic of reaching Euro 2016, both building after recent slumps, both with a couple of technically gifted players in sides built if effort and organization. It was predictably, played at a ferocious tempo, littered with robust challenges and stray limbs, always engaging but too quick ever to produce much in the way of sophistication of beauty. There was running rather than thinking, furious and perpetual effort rather than incision.
The first half comprised 17 free-kicks and only one meaningful chance. The most significant of the fouls came after 12 minutes as Shane Long, having dispossessed Grant Hanley, was tripped by him as he threatened to run through on goal. It could easily have been a red card for the Scotland defender, but the Serbian referee Milorad Mazic was lenient and showed only a yellow. A quarter of an hour later, Hanley was again fortunate as his loose arm that caught the Ireland goalkeeper David Forde in the face could easily have earned him a second yellow.
Scotland had started slowly before their additional man in central midfield began to give them the nearest the game came to control. They also had the one clear opportunity with Shaun Maloney finding a pocket of space — that most elusive of commodities — on the right flank and crossing for Charlie Mulgrew, who headed just wide.
Ireland’s most creative player, Aiden McGeady, his every touch booed because he chose Ireland despite being born in Glasgow, was largely overshadowed by Andrew Robertson in the first half, and not helped by the fact that Seamus Coleman, usually so attacking as a fullback, remained fairly deep, clearly troubled by the threat of Ikechi Anya’s pace.
Coleman was notably more aggressive after the break and Ireland enjoyed their first sustained spell of pressure in the first 10 minutes after halftime. A whipped McGeady cross almost picked out Jonathan Walters and then a right wing corner created half a chance for Long, as he diverted Walters’ header back into the box. It was a slightly looping effort, though, and David Marshall grabbed it without having to overextend himself. The Cardiff keeper was soon drawn into a far better save, diving to his left to push away a low skidding volley from McGeady.
As in the first half, after some early Irish flurries, the game tipped back towards Scotland. Steven Nasimith, the one player on the pitch who did regularly find space, worked an opening on the right. His low cross picked out Chris Martin, who had come on for the injured Steven Fletcher, but his first-time shot zipped just wide of Forde’s near post. Still, it was a sign of the way the momentum was going.
Walters headed a Mulgrew free-kick against his bar after 74 minutes. Scotland took the corner, Maloney played the ball into the box to Scott Brown, who then flicked it back into his path. Amid the tumult, it was a moment of surprising calm. Malnoey took a touch and then, with icy precision, sidefooted a curling shot in off the far post.
This was a moment of exquisite quality wholly out of keeping with the game. Ireland will, rightly, ask how Brown was left unmarked to return the ball to Maloney, and McGeady’s attempt to close him down had an air of tokenism, but the strike itself was glorious.
Ireland responded, of course, by throwing on record scorer Robbie Keane and then launching a barrage of crosses into the box. A Robbie Brady free-kick kissed Hanley’s head and smacked his own bar, but Scotland held out. In the sense that they had, in Maloney and Naismith, the two outstanding players on the pitch it was a deserved win.
Both sides, though, probably need to discover a more measured way of playing if they’re to progress to France.