The Scottish Mail on Sunday
ECSTASY GIVES WAY TO AGONY
Griffiths’ late free-kick brace sparks joy for Scotland but is undone by Kane equaliser
SCOTLAND crammed delightful then, ultimately, devastating drama into the wildest six minutes of World Cup qualifying chaos of this or any of the nation’s tortuous campaigns, as England snatched a draw in stoppage time.
You thought the cruel fashion in which Poland ended Scotland’s shot at a Euro 2016 place in stoppage time on the penultimate night of action in the previous tournament was as painful as it gets for this football nation? Think again.
Here, Harry Kane netting three minutes beyond normal time was the sickening smack in the face for Leigh Griffiths sending Hampden Park into a frenzy with two stunning free-kick goals in the 87th and 90th minutes.
Those — his first for the country — cancelled out Alex OxladeChamberlain’s strike and put Scotland on the brink of saving Russia 2018 hopes. Of copping one of the greatest results in the history of the fixture. Of giving Gordon Strachan his best day as a manager.
Then England skipper Kane, who had been denied with several opportunities throughout a poor contest, pounced to round off the season of his career by becoming England’s saviour at the death. The flat-track bullies of international football remain unbeaten in qualifying competition since 2009. That is now 35 games.
Yet the boys from Gareth Southgate’s boot camp were not so armed and dangerous for the bulk of a slow-paced game against a rearguard action that saw Scotland retreat into trenches.
Centre-halves in the bottom half of the English Championship last season, Christophe Berra and Charlie Mulgrew were joined by Kieran Tierney in trying to snuff out Kane and company.
And with Ikechi Anya and Andrew Robertson camping in whenever England were in possession, Strachan was true to the ‘Must not lose’ mantra with which he kicked off international week.
Within two minutes, Scott Brown tried. Yet was reminded continental referees are not as kind to him as, say, Bobby Madden in the Scottish Cup final. A reckless foul on Dele Alli landed him in yellow peril within two minutes.
He was mightily fortunate not to see a second yellow for clattering into Alli on the touchline midway through the second half and even mild-mannered Southgate was drawn into the theatrics of asking the referee for the ultimate sanction.
The aggression and blistering pace with which Scotland began — a Griffiths snapshot fired straight at Joe Hart and a series of corners created discomfort — soon withered and England seized control.
Kane was the recipient of club assistance as England eeked out their first chance 17 minutes in. Eric Dier’s chip found Kane turning Tierney. The wild and wayward attempt was most unlike the back-to-back top English Premier League scorer.
Adam Lallana was a ghosting presence with his runs and one untracked burst allowed him to flick across goal. Kane could not adjust his footing in time and the ball bounded out of play.
Robert Snodgrass could not help Scotland creep up the park, and demonstrated his frustration by gesticulating his displeasure at Anya then Strachan.
The West Ham forward did not look at all sharp and when yet another move broke down at his feet, it triggered 28th-minute chaos for his colleagues. Craig Gordon rushed out of his penalty box to head clear, but not clear enough. Kane returned fire with a looping shot that Tierney was alert to nod off the line.
James Morrison slipped when trying to hoof the ball further away, and Gordon recovered to boot clear Marcus Rashford’s follow-up shot.
If Brown had tried to leave a mark on 6ft 2in Alli with his early antics then it failed. Alli glided forward after Anya was robbed, slid in Rashford, and Tierney — once again — was in the right spot to smother an England attack. Being asked to play an unfamiliar role once again for Scotland — he was right-back against Slovenia — is some learning curve for the 19-year-old, who will have created more glowing scout reports from elite company.
Lallana ruffled the side netting and Jake Livermore’s fierce 22-yard hit was punched over by Gordon as England finished the half well on top but failed to suitably punish the hosts for their own inability to keep possession when breaking.
Morrison was replaced by James McArthur at the break, and the Crystal Palace man was one of the bodies in dark blue to crowd out the follow-ups after a Livermore shot deflected off the post.
Then Scotland’s best spell — leading up to the hour — presented chances. Griffiths failed to tease a soft spot-kick out of the Italian referee but he saw much more of the ball in the second half. When he teed up Robertson 20 yards out, the Hull full-back’s composure and lethal left foot deserted him.
Ryan Fraser’s debut on 65 minutes, replacing Snodgrass, was intended to be the injection of width and pace needed to really trouble England on the counter. However, it was the England switch a minute earlier that made the killer impact as Oxlade-Chamberlain was introduced.
Gordon pushed away Kane’s header with typically strong reactions. However, he was forced into conceding a throw-in when under pressure from Alli with the ball at his feet and dealing with a Tierney passback. That led to England working their way to goal.
Kyle Walker and Dier played Oxlade-Chamberlain in from the right. With a clever twist and turn, he dragged himself clear of Brown and set his sights on crafting a shooting chance. Neither Armstrong nor Tierney could get tight and, when they collided, the Arsenal wide man went for glory. With Gordon down too early, all the Celtic keeper could do was force the ball into the roof of the net rather than over his crossbar.
Scotland players were treated for cramp all over the pitch, but one man was not for buckling. Before his 12th and fruitless attempt to break his Scotland scoring duck in March, Griffiths lamented he might have been trying too hard to earn a first international goal.
No one will blame him for this tiny character ‘fault’ now. All hope was about to extinguish on the campaign after six, sorry matches. The England fans were goading Strachan about an imminent date with departure from office. However, the Royal Marines who recently hosted the England squad for a boot camp exercise, clearly did not pass on any instructions to Hart on how to construct a decent defensive wall.
A kung-fu kick from Gary Cahill