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.

Pic­ture: SNS

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.

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