The two late goals which sank Scotland in a dank, rainy Cardiff were as brutal as an ambush, delivering a result which left 5000 travelling supporters too shellshocked for anger, too stunned to let rip. They melted away, broken by the result which means reaching the 2014 finals is a lost cause. Brazil no more. Craig Levein will take charge for the game against Belgium on Tuesday but what beyond that? The SFA faces a tide of public opinion demanding that he be replaced.
Last night was harsh – bringing back Steven Fletcher lifted Scotland to one of the better competitive displays of Levein's reign, at least in the first half – but, after James Morrison put them ahead, the same player couldn't convert an excellent chance to cement a victory. Fletcher himself should have been awarded a goal but the German officials wrongly disallowed it. Ifs, buts and maybes. The story remains the same. Scotland couldn't see the job through and then the most talented player on the pitch, Gareth Bale, put them to the sword.
It wasn't a penalty when Bale ran across Shaun Maloney 10 minutes from time. The Spurs man, as fast as lightning, as elusive as mercury, seemed to clip his own heels – by accident or design? – and go down. But the referee Florian Meyer gave the penalty and Bale himself stuck it past Allan McGregor.
Scotland's world began to spin and Bale wasn't finished. Just two minutes from the end, he took possession in the Scotland half and Charlie Adam failed to close him down. The shot Bale swung high into the corner of McGregor's net was sumptuous. It was as if Scotland had been killed by a work of art. Horrible and beautiful at the same time.
The World Cup is over now. A mere two points from a possible nine is irrecoverable. The players may think the world of Levein but, even allowing for the refereeing last night, there is now an established pattern in which they fail to deliver results for him. Wales had lost five consecutive games before this, but they were good enough to bring down Levein. He has won only three competitive games in 11.
They really hadn't looked like losing this one, though. Here, for once, Levein had pretty much all of his key players available and his selection seemed sensible, pragmatic and positive. In came Fletcher to lead the attack, of course, but there was room for Kris Commons, too.
If it was baffling that a player not named in the original squad, and recently described as only eighth best in his position by Levein, should suddenly leapfrog straight into the team, then the quibbles could wait. Scotland needed to win and finding room for Commons was welcome. Kenny Miller, Charlie Adam and Andy Webster were relegated to the bench. The side looked strong and capable.
Commons and Maloney played wide with Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown in the centre: a blend of creativity and strength across the middle. Fletcher's distribution was rusty at times but he added composure and presence which helped to counter Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen in the Welsh midfield. Brown was quiet, not looking fully fit, and was replaced by Adam at half-time.
Alan Hutton was spared exposure to the phosphorescent pace of Bale. His former Spurs team-mate played on the Welsh right, giving Maloney and Danny Fox the headache of containing him on the other side. They couldn't. Bale exploded away behind Fox more than once, creating space for himself to curl a shot just past the far post and later pick out Steve Morison for a glorious chance to bury a header. Mercifully for Scotland, the Norwich City man sent it wide. Fox being caught too far upfield was a constant worry.
Within seconds of that Morison miss, Wales were made to pay. McGregor's long goal kick sailed straight down the middle of the park before Fletcher flicked it on for James Morrison. Wales' defending was a mess but the midfielder was in, letting the ball bounce a couple of times before burying a shot inside Lewis Price's left-hand post.
Scotland had scored with their first chance of the game, after 27 minutes. It wasn't against the run of play, as such, because neither team had control. Scotland were worried by Bale and Ramsey in particular, while Wales had reason to be anxious about Steven Fletcher, Morrison and Commons. There wasn't much in it. Allen robbed Commons to begin a counter-attack which ended only when Gary Caldwell made a terrific block to deny the Liverpool man a goal.
It wouldn't have been just if Scotland had put the game away before half-time, but they might have done so. After the opening goal, they quickly created another couple of real chances. Fox's cross seem to come just a little too awkwardly to Steven Fletcher and his connection wasn't strong enough to threaten Price. Then, an even better opening came from the other side. Hutton's deep cross was knocked down by Steven Fletcher to Morrison, whose volley flew over the bar. The finish let them down but it had been a sharp move, showing an encouraging understanding between the two forwards.
Wales fought like lions as Scotland retreated through the second half. They howled for a penalty when Ramsey fell under an Adam challenge. Ramsey had another chance, then Bale. Wales smacked of desperation, but the story wasn't over. Steven Fletcher headed the ball into the net but the assistant flagged that Adam's cross had gone out of play on the way over. And then, like a flare, Bale fully exploded on to the night.
Where does it leave Levein? The last time Scotland began a campaign with three winless games the manager was sacked. The SFA faces an impossible job to convince fans it should be any different now.
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