EVERY time you think Scotland must have run out of agonising ways in which to exit the running for a place at a major tournament finals, along comes a new form of torture.
Yesterday’s Euro 2012 qualifier against the Czech Republic at Hampden was meant to be judgment day on the Craig Levein era. Instead it was misjudgment day for a Dutch referee.
The Spanish official Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez had tabloid reporters camped outside his house for weeks after an erroneous free-kick award against Italy ensured the Scots would not be at the 2008 World Cup.
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Kevin Blom of the Netherlands might expect a similar fate after the questionable decisions he made on two injury-time penalty appeals which all but sealed Scotland’s fate this time. Levein wasn’t exactly throwing in the towel, but his team may well now need to win all three of their remaining games – at home to Lithuania on Tuesday and away to Liechtenstein and Spain next month – to stand any chance of making it to Poland and Ukraine next summer.
Levein’s side were three minutes away from a flinty, resolute victory when the Czech substitute Jan Rezek viewed Danny Wilson’s lunge as an open invitation to cynically throw himself to the turf inside the box.
Michal Kadlec slamming in the penalty was bad enough, but within minutes the referee, when faced with a similar situation at the other end of the pitch, rejected Scotland’s appeals and booked Christophe Berra for going down under the challenge of Roman Hubnik. Blom had also blundered, although this time in Scotland’s favour, in the first half, when he dismissed Czech calls for the most glaring penalty of the day after Charlie Adam trod on Milan Baros’s ankle.
The Tartan Army had turned out in sell-out numbers, infused with a perhaps unhealthy confidence that yesterday’s visitors would be put to the sword in the way two sides from the former Czechoslovakia were to ensure Scotland’s progress to the 1974 and 1978 World Cups.
Michal Bilek’s team had won only once in seven matches and were without the injured Petr Cech, with Jan Lastuvka of Ukrainian side Dnipro making his full debut in place of the Chelsea goalkeeper. The veteran Milan Baros started up front ahead of Tomas Necid.
Levein had taken a few calculated risks with his side but at least one paid off, with captain Darren Fletcher performing miracles on his return after a virus that had kept him out of action for months.
The manner in which both teams started suggested home confidence may have been misplaced. Gary Caldwell and Berra are the most experienced centre-halves Scotland have, but both betrayed signs of nervousness early on. Berra struck Caldwell with one panicky clearance, and Alan Hutton also took a while to get to grips with the pacy Petr Jiracek. Baros survived a shout for hand ball to work an opening with Jiracek, and Scotland were mightily relieved when his close-range finish went wastefully over.
Defending in the Scotland penalty area was becoming a drama. Jan Rajnoch headed over from a Tomis Rosicky dead ball, Hutton just about timed correctly another lunge on Jiracek, then Adam somehow got away with the foul on Baros under the referee’s nose.
Lastuvka was finally called into action to claim a Steven Naismith header from a deep Caldwell cross, but it was a surprise when Scotland established a lead they barely deserved just before half-time. Fletcher was too strong for Jaroslav Plasil and fed Miller, whose low shot spun off the foot of Lastuvka and into the net.
In the second half, Miller almost got on the end of a James Morrison cross, but the Czechs were on the front foot and when a Kadlec cross found Wilson a yard from his man, Rezek’s driven ball back across goal was deflected into the net by the chest of Plasil with 78 minutes on the clock.
Scotland redoubled their efforts and reclaimed their lead. A Wilson pass spun away from Jan Rajnoch and Miller’s lovely pass was nervelessly swept home by the onrushing Fletcher.
But the hosts couldn’t hold on, and a sweet Rosicky pass behind Wilson was the catalyst for three minutes of madness. In the end, a draw may have been just about a fair result, but there was nothing fair about the manner in which it was determined.
After a niggly 90 minutes, Levein also faces a full-on selection dilemma ahead of the Lithuania game. Phil Bardsley and Charlie Adam had to be withdrawn yesterday, Alan Hutton also picked up a knock, and Scott Brown and Kenny Miller are suspended after picking up bookings. Craig Mackail-Smith was not fit to take a place on the bench for the Czech match due to a back problem.