Martin makes his mark from the bench to keep Russia dream alive
THEY struck the crossbar, they hit the post, they had a header cleared off the line and they forced some outstanding saves from the opposition goalkeeper.
But Scotland could, despite dominating a Russia 2018 qualifier they had to triumph in to keep alive their slender hopes of reaching the World Cup next year completely, find no way through Slovenia at Hampden last night.
And with little over two minutes remaining in their fifth Group F outing it looked distinctly as if their chances of ending their absence from the finals of a major tournament were poised to end in typically heartbreaking fashion.
The national manager Gordon Strachan, meanwhile, was facing the very real prospect of his four-year spell in charge coming to an end due to his charges drawing a game which he had admitted was a “must win”.
But Chris Martin, the Fulham striker whose arrival on the field had been booed by the Tartan Army shortly before, had not read what has become a familiar script over the years.
Martin controlled a delightful through ball from Stuart Armstrong on his right foot and then stroked a left-foot shot which slid past Slovenia goalkeeper Jan Oblak and struck the left post before the ball ended up nestling in the back of the net. It was ultimately enough to clinch victory.
There is still a great deal of work to be done following this richly-deserved and wildly-celebrated 1-0 triumph – group leaders England, after all, are next up at the same venue in June – but all of a sudden the table is looking a lot more respectable.
England will probably, as they always do, finish first and qualify automatically. But Scotland are just two points behind second-placed Slovakia and one point adrift of Slovenia following this vital result. They will certainly go into their match with their ancient rivals at the end of the season brimming with optimism after this showing.
There could be no faulting Strachan for his team selection or tactics or the players for their desire and skill. Their finishing was another matter. But it would have been extremely harsh on them all if they had failed to take all three points.
Armstrong, who was named man of the match on his debut for his country, made a huge difference and looks as if he is set to enjoy a long and successful international career.
Strachan, as he had indicated he would when he named his squad, played Kieran Tierney out of position at right back and selected Andy Robertson at left back. It was, despite the quality of the individuals involved, a gamble, but the experiment worked well.
Tierney was one of no fewer than six Celtic players named in the starting line-up: Armstrong, Scott Brown, James Forrest, Craig Gordon and Leigh Griffiths were the others.
Defender Russell Martin, who had forced a fine save from Oblak in the first minute after connecting with a Robert Snodgrass corner, had the ball in the back of the net five minutes later.
But Dutch referee Njorn Kuipers correctly ruled that he had pushed Miral Samardzic to the ground as he waited for another floated dead ball delivery at the back post from Snodgrass and disallowed it. It was, despite the distinct lack of atmosphere inside the half-empty stadium, a rousing start by the home team.
Slovenia only managed to get a single shot on target all evening. Roman Bezjak did brilliantly to beat the offside trap in the 19th minute. But Gordon, who once again justified his selection in goals with an assured display, was untroubled by it.
Bostjan Cesar, the Slovenian centre half, was booked for time wasting at a free-kick inside his own half and was probably fortunate not to be promptly yellow carded and sent off for kicking the ball away in frustration.
Then came an extraordinary and impossibly frustrating three-minute spell when Scotland carved out, and failed to capitalise on, three excellent scoring chances in as many minutes.
Robertson and Snodgrass combined brilliantly on the left flank to set up Griffiths. The forward had, thanks to his team-mates, an empty net to prod the ball into after Oblack got sucked out of position. He failed, however, to keep his left-foot shot down and struck the crossbar.
Griffiths hit the woodwork soon after when Gordon unleashed Armstrong down the right with a throw out of his penalty box. The midfielder squared the ball to the striker whose right-foot shot beat Oblak but struck off the post.
Then it was Morrison’s turn to be thwarted. He rose well to meet a Snodgrass corner but his goal-bound header was nodded off the line by Valter Birsa. What did Scotland have to do to score?
Griffiths was kneed in the back by Oblak as he challenged for a high ball just before the half-time and required medical attention before resuming the game. But he only lasted for a couple of minutes after the game restarted. He hobbled off and was replaced by Steven Naismith in the 50th minute.
Strachan’s charges didn’t dominate to the extent they had in the opening 45 minutes in the second half. The manager clearly sensed his side’s control of the game was slipping away and replaced Snodgrass, who was tiring after putting in an impressive shift, on the left wing with Ikechi Anya in the 75th minute.
The substitute nearly scored with his first touch. Naismith and Forrest combined well to tee up the Derby County man inside the Slovenia area. But his shot was weak and directed straight at Oblak and the score remained deadlocked.
The introduction of Martin for the excellent Morrison did not go down well with the crowd. But they had changed their tune by the final whistle.
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER: Substitute Chris Martin’s left-foot shot with just two minutes remaining thwarts Jan Oblak in the Slovenia goal to give Scotland a precious three points in Group F.