So the dream lives on and the nightmare of Scotland’s Euro 2024 hopes being consigned to history after five days are over. Sunday in Stuttgart will be a showdown against the Hungarians. Steve Clarke’s side were a slice of luck away from winning against Switzerland here and over the course the stronger side. This was far closer to the Scotland we all hoped to see this summer; brave and emboldened.

There were faults and it would be out of character for a self-deprecating nation to not acknowledge them. But in terms of a response to the five goals in Munich, the results were encouraging. Beyond any tactical or personnel differences it was the belief in the next pass and shaking off of imposter syndrome that reminded Europe, and perhaps Scotland themselves, that they are not simply here to take part.

(Image: PA)

The RheinEnergieStadion was a cacophony of pre-match noise with its steep stands and well-oiled customers who rarely dimmed in volume. The Tartan Army’s rendition of Flower of Scotland was somehow louder still than their offering during the opening defeat. Days since the mauling suffered against Germany have been spent searching for any of the goodwill and momentum that carried Clarke’s team to into this summer with hope that, this time, things can be different. In fairness during an opening 45 minutes that passed in a blink given its total grasp of the attention Scotland were well improved. If not for an individual error leading to an individual moment of brilliance when Antony Ralston surrendered the ball cheaply 26 minutes in, the opening exchange would’ve been perfect. It was so unfortunate that the one player in tournament football who religiously scores from the range afforded, Xherdan Shaqiri, remembered his part in the script.

Improving from Friday’s debacle was a prerequisite for Scotland heading into matchday two despite the brilliance of their hosts. Here they were lighter and brighter on the ball, aided by the inclusion of Billy Gilmour at the base of midfield who so clearly lifts the confidence of others around him more to keep possession and not put it up for grabs. The Brighton midfielder was a constant safety net, always showing and spinning away from danger in a first half where he misplaced only two passes. Scott McTominay and John McGinn were closer to Che Adams who responded to Friday’s experience of Covid-style isolation with a combative edge as he often kept the balls fired into him. Braver decisions were made in possession as the Scotland midfield played to its strengths.

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Gilmour’s performance was not the best we’ve seen in dark blue but, as is the sign of good players, he makes the collective better. The ball was kept at the right times instead of being turned over while Callum McGregor looked all the happier slotting in next to the 23-year-old. While it was likely a reflection of the desire to play a more direct brand back to front that saw Gilmour sitting on the bench against Germany that alone doesn’t feel like sufficient logic to leave out what he brings.

Work off the ball featured far more intensity and aggression. With Kieran Tierney matching Dan Ndoye’s surging runs in behind stride-for-stride bar one second-half moment when the Bologna forward shot wide. The sight of Tierney immediately signalling for the bench’s attention as he tumbled in that moment and stretchered off was the last view Clarke wanted heading south to Stuttgart in a matter of days. McTominay often man-marked Granit Xhaka to nullify his influenece which worked well all night and Clarke was brave in leaving his three-man defence man-for-man at points. This led to a couple of nervy occasions as Shaqiri, operating in a deep false nine role, dragged Grant Hanley into areas of the pitch normally untended by the 32-year-old defender. Generally, however, aggression stopped the Scotland defence from being pinned back in their shape and unable to break forwards. By Clarke’s own admission, Scotland looked unsure of their instruction at the Allianz. Here, there was unity as they shifted across the park.

They’d seen 49 per cent of the ball by half-time and taken the lead when, following a corner, Gilmour’s flick, Andy Robertson’s powerful run and McGregor’s cutback created the perfect conditions for McTominay to gallop onto the ball and swing a left foot at it. Fabian Schar’s generous deflection might have made this goal possible but the creation of the moment deserves praise. This was more like it, this was the Scotland we expected to see over summer. One remembering not only why they were in Germany, but the talents and tools that allowed them access.

(Image: PA)

While it was a mistake that Clarke’s side profited from to lead the manner of their concession stung, Ralston’s short backpass, and clearly identified pressing trigger in the Swiss ranks all evening, was a reminder of the quality the Scotland manager is missing with Aaron Hickey and Nathan Patterson injured and unavailable. Angus Gunn twice dived to his left keeping out bending efforts and in short spells the Swiss grabbed momentum. But it was never handed over for long before being wrestled back one way or another. Whether it was breaking the press, keeping the ball or pushing forward to press, Clarke’s side were not in the mood to be a supporting act this time.

Both teams were shooting towards the end dominated by their respective country after the break with Cologne’s stadium a contrasting blue and red. It was Scotland who came closest when Hanley clipped the post diving onto a free-kick from Robertson. Thereafter decibel levels ahot up among the Tartan Army who were believing once again, watching a game there to be seized. By this point the result suited the Swiss more and it showed. A late McGinn tackle, who grew with the game, was proceeded by a full rendition of the Aston Villa midfielder’s song which half of Germany must know by now. A winner would not arrive despite the fact that it was Scotland who looked most likely to find one.

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If there is one collective lesson to take away from the Rhineland it is that Scotland require confidence in their own game to make history and make an exit from the group. Using a brave midfield to compete for the ball and keep it, staying on the ball to get Robertson, McTominay and Co into the final third and finding a way through pressure rather than panicking.

A win against Hungary, far easier said than done, would probably see Clarke’s side make history by becoming the first team this country has ever produced to reach the knockouts. Marco Rossi’s men are far better than two defeats and five goals to one suggest. So too, as shown here in Cologne, are Scotland than the same score recorded over the course of 90 minutes in Munich. Who knows where belief can take them if it keeps on burning.