THE outcome of a football match, even one where World Cup qualification is on the line, pales into insignificance when compared to the horrific events which are currently taking place in war-ravaged Ukraine.

But, boy, did this gut-wrenching Qatar 2022 play-off semi-final defeat at Hampden tonight hurt like hell for Scotland and their supporters.

The national team’s gallant bid to reach their first finals since France ‘98, which had gained great momentum when they won their last six Group F qualifiers last year and finished runners-up in their section, came to an end with an agonising home loss.

Much had been made about the difficult build-up which the visitors had endured in recent months before the rescheduled Path A game. Their home-based contingent had not been able to play professionally following the Russian invasion of their country back in February.

But Ukraine outclassed their hosts for long spells after kick-off and would have won by a far more comfortable margin had it not been for the excellence of Craig Gordon. 

Would the home side have fared better if the encounter had gone ahead as scheduled in March? It is possible. Andy Robertson and his team mates failed to perform anywhere near the level they had in their last competitive outing against Denmark in Glasgow back in November.

Scotland, who fell behind to a Andriy Yarmaloneko goal in the first-half and a Roman Yaremchuk header early in the second, certainly fought valiantly to the death and gave themselves a great chance of forcing extra-time. The Tartan Army could be proud of the effort their heroes put in.

But when John McGinn nodded wide in the 67th minute when an empty net was beckoning it was to prove a costly miss. Callum McGregor pulled one back with 11 minutes remaining after Ukraine goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan had punched a cross to his feet.

Scotland then laid siege to the Ukraine goal. But their late rally could not produce a longed-for equaliser and they were caught on the counter. Artem Dovbyk made it 3-1 with the last kick of the game. The wait to reach the World Cup finals continues.

The goodwill extended to Ukraine before the match evaporated in the fifth minute when Yaremchuk brought down Billy Gilmour and received a yellow card from Dutch referee Danny Makkelie.  

Ukraine had booked their place in the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 with an extra-time win over Sweden on the last occasion they played at Hampden. They quickly showed why they had made it through to the last eight of that competition in the eighth minute when they came close to opening the scoring.

Oleksandr Karavev picked out Viktor Tsygankov on the edge of the opposition area and Gordon did superbly to tip his effort over the crossbar for a corner despite the low evening sun that was blinding him.

Scotland had their veteran goalkeeper to thank for keeping them on level terms on a few occasions in the first-half. He did well to deny Yarmalenko after good work by Tsygankov and Taras Stepanenko and got off his line quickly to prevent Yarmchuk from slotting past him.

Olekandr Petrakov’s men may have had about as difficult a build-up to this encounter as was possible. But they looked fit and sharp and displayed great intelligence on and off the ball. They dominated possession and pinned their rivals back for long spells.

Scotland did threaten on the counter. McGinn headed a corner from Robertson over, the left wing back had an attempt blocked by Tsygankov and McGinn volleyed high into the stands after a slick move involving Che Adams and McGregor. But they still looked the side more likely to concede.

A sell-out crowd crammed in to Hampden. However, the section that housed the yellow and blue clad away fans drowned out their counterparts despite being vastly outnumbered. Their men had complete control of proceedings and deserved to edge in front in the 33rd minute.

Yarmolenko sprang the offside trap, got on the end of a long ball from Ruslan Malinovskyi and coolly lobbed Gordon. It was a sublime finish from the 6ft 2in West Ham winger. But the Scotland rearguard was cut open far too easily. 

Lyndon Dykes worked hard up front alongside Adams and managed to supply him with on a few occasions after winning aerial challenges. He was booked for an elbow Taras Stepanenko just before half-time. But Bushchan remained untested.

Clarke had to make a change and he did so. Dykes failed to reappear for the second-half. His place was taken by Ryan Christie. The Bournemouth man had netted in the Euro 2020 play-off final against Serbia in Belgrade. Could he provide some much-needed inspiration in the final third? 

His side fell two behind in the 49th minute when Oleksandr Karavaev floated the ball to Yaremchuk. The Benfica forward held off Aaron Hickey and headed into the bottom right corner. The scorer jumped the advertising hoardings and ran to his compatriots in the stands to celebrate. It was easy to understand their joy.

McGregor went close after charging down Bushchan and Christie forced a save from the keeper before being flagged for offside. But McGinn should have done far, far better when the Dynamo Kyiv man fumbled a McTominay cross to him a few yards out.

Clarke immediately removed Cooper and Gilmour, put on Jack Hendry and Stuart Armstrong, switched to a back four and moved McTominay into midfield. The change made a huge difference.

Buschchan did brilliantly to keep a powerful drive from Adams out in the 75th minute. Then McGregor netted his second international goal four minutes later when he chipped a Bushchan punch over the line to rouse the crowd to life. The Celtic midfielder then ran back and dispossessed Dovbyk as the substitute broke through on goal.  

But nobody was there to prevent Dovbyk from scoring in the fourth minute of injury-time. Ukraine will fancy their chances of defeating Wales in Cardiff on Sunday and going through to Qatar in November after this morale-boosting and emotional triumph.