One team on its way to a fi­nals, the other to the beach

Strachan’s shadow box­ers un­able to put up a fight in unin­spired dis­play


DE­FEAT to such a revered foot­balling na­tion is no em­bar­rass­ment and es­pe­cially not by such a re­spectable score­line.

Yet, the 1-0 loss which Scot­land suf­fered to Italy in a friendly in­ter­na­tional in the Ta’ Qali Sta­dium here in Malta last night could, but for some sloppy fin­ish­ing by their op­po­nents, have been much worse.

The na­tional team will re­turn to the same venue for their open­ing World Cup qual­i­fier in Septem­ber when they will take on the host na­tion and will hope and ex­pect to fare far bet­ter.

But this one-sided en­counter against a coun­try bound for the Euro 2016 fi­nals in France next month pro­vided no ev­i­dence that Gor­don Strachan’s charges are ca­pa­ble of pro­gress­ing to Rus­sia 2018.

Scot­land, watched by more than 1000 sup­port­ers as they played their penul­ti­mate match be­fore get­ting their Group F cam­paign un­der way, strug­gled to get out of their own half, won a sin­gle corner and had a soli­tary shot at goal. That came late on and was off tar­get.

Yes, sev­eral po­ten­tial starters were miss­ing, in­clud­ing cap­tain Scott Brown, Alan Hut­ton, Shaun Maloney, An­drew Robert­son and Robert Sn­od­grass, but Strachan could take pre­cious lit­tle from this work­out.

A stark im­prove­ment will be re­quired from all in­volved for a dam­ag­ing de­feat to be avoided against France in Metz this Satur­day.

David Mar­shall could be for­given for feel­ing un­der pres­sure af­ter the out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tions of Al­lan McGre­gor and Craig Gor­don in the friendly matches against the Czech Repub­lic and Den­mark re­spec­tively back in March.

How­ever, if the Cardiff City goal­keeper is it didn’t show last night. He pro­duced an ex­cel­lent dou­ble save in the sev­enth minute af­ter Rus­sell Martin had gifted Italy a free-kick in a dan­ger­ous area just out­side of his penalty box with a barge on Eder.

Mar­shall did well to first block the treach­er­ous low shot which An­to­nio Can­dreva un­leashed at him and then deny the fol­low-up shot from Emanuele Gi­ac­cherini from close range and keep Scot­land level.

Dar­ren Fletcher cap­tained the side in the ab­sence of Scott Brown and formed the cen­tral mid­field part­ner­ship with James McArthur. The pair worked hard to break down op­po­si­tion at­tacks and steal pos­ses­sion against ri­vals who quickly took con­trol of the game.

They were un­able to pre­vent Can­dreva from com­bin­ing with Gi­ac­cherini in the 23rd minute to cre­ate an­other op­por­tu­nity for An­to­nio Conte’s side. The Lazio man cut the ball back to the Bologna mid­fielder in space in the penalty area. His team mate skied his shot high into the stands.

By their own high stan­dards, this is not a great Ital­ian side. They are cur­rently rated 15th in the cur­rent FIFA world rank­ings be­hind the likes of Aus­tria, Tur­key and Switzer­land and are 16-1 out­siders with some book­mak­ers to win Euro 2016.

They lack the mid­field in­ge­nu­ity for which they were so long renowned and which An­drea Pirlo, omit­ted from this pre­lim­i­nary squad, has pro­vided for so long. Up front, they are with­out a striker of the cal­i­bre of Roberto Bag­gio, a Paolo Rossi or a Chris­tian Vieri.

Still, even an av­er­age Italy team is a for­mi­da­ble ad­ver­sary and Scot­land cer­tainly strug­gled to con­tain them. Gi­ac­cherini was heav­ily in­volved and should have put his coun­try in front on the half hour mark af­ter be­ing sent clean through on goal by Daniele De Rossi. Once again, his at­tempt sailed over.

Italy had a penalty claim waved away by ref­eree Alan Mario Sant just be­fore half-time af­ter Eder went to ground fol­low­ing a chal­lenge by Grant Han­ley. The Mal­tese match of­fi­cial got his de­ci­sion spot on. But Scot­land were highly for­tu­nate not to fall be­hind dur­ing the open­ing 45 min­utes.

Strachan handed a de­but to Cal­lum Pater­son, the 21-year-old who has en­joyed a fine sea­son with Hearts in the Lad­brokes Premiership, at right back. Hav­ing to shackle Mat­teo Darmian of Manch­ester United was a big ask. But he can be en­cour­aged by his solid show­ing.

Pater­son came off and was re­placed by Christophe Berra at the start of the sec­ond half as Strachan shuf­fled his de­fence. The sub­sti­tute slot­ted in at cen­tre half and Martin moved out wide. The change made lit­tle dif­fer­ence to the flow of the game.

Ross McCor­mack started up front for the sec­ond time in three in­ter­na­tion­als. For a player who spent over two years out of the side un­til be­ing re­called for the friendly against the Czechs it is quite a re­turn to favour for the Ful­ham for­ward. He re­ceived lit­tle ser­vice, though, and was un­able to trou­ble Gian­luigi Buf­fon in the Italy goal. Steven Fletcher took over from him in the sec­ond half.

Matt Phillips worked hard on the right flank and Ikechi Anya dropped back and helped out with de­fen­sive du­ties fre­quently. He cer­tainly needed to. But the wingers could do noth­ing to cre­ate any open­ings. Buf­fon’s only in­volve­ment in pro­ceed­ings was to claim a Matt Ritchie free-kick which he did com­fort­ably.

Italy fi­nally edged in front in the 57th minute when Pelle curled a right foot shot be­yond Mar­shall from 20 yards out. The Scottish play­ers had am­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties to halt the at­tack dur­ing its build-up. But Fletcher, who gave away the ball when he fell over it on the touch­line, must ac­cept a fair amount of re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Steven Nai­smith came on for Anya and Oliver Burke re­placed Phillips in the 72nd minute. The for­mer teed up Ritchie with Scot­land’s best scor­ing chance of the match six min­utes af­ter tak­ing to the field when he laid the ball off for him. But the Bournemouth player sliced his ef­fort wide of goal.

Picture: Getty Im­ages

NICE TO SEE YOU: Italy’s Sal­va­tore Sirigu, left, chats with for­mer goal­keeper Wal­ter Zenga prior to kick-off at last night’s friendly.

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