SCOTLAND 1 SLOVAKIA 0
IT was the late, late show again at Hampden tonight as Scotland kept their World Cup dream alive with a frantic victory against the Slovaks in front of a frenzied Tartan Army.
Another international campaign teetered on the verge of extinction with Gordon Strachan realising this was a win-or-bust encounter if there was to be the possibility of a play-off in the pursuit of a place in Russia next summer.
The Scots had been defied twice by the crossbar and four times by the remarkable Martin Debrovka who was having the game of his life in goal for the visitors.
Slovakia had reorganised superbly following the red card for Robert Mak in 22 minutes after he picked up two bookings, one for a crude challenge on James Forrest and the other for a senseless dive as Craig Gordon withdrew his hands in anticipation of such a crazy action from the opponent.
However, with 89 minutes on the clock, it looked as though Scotland’s heroic efforts were going to mean little.
At that stage, the Slovaks knew a home win over Malta on Sunday would see them through to the play-off stage and there would have been nothing Strachan’s men could have done in Slovenia to prevent that.
But, with a courageous, never-say-die spirit, the Scots continued to surge forward. James Morrison slid a pass in front of all-action Leigh Griffiths and the Celt did wonderfully well to turn his defender and place a ball in front of the rampaging Ikechi Anya, a late substitute for Kieran Tierney.
The Derby star zipped a low ball to the near post where Chris Martin, another replacement for James Forrest, was lurking. The defender and the attacker went for the ball at the same time.
To the horror of the Slovakian captain and ex-Liverpool stalwart, he got there first. The ball took a nick off his studs and Debrovka was at last beaten.
The supreme shotstopper attempted to change his shape in mid-air, but not even he could prevent the miscue from Skrtel sneaking in low at the post.
Hampden erupted and suddenly a World Cup lifeline had been thrown in the direction of the Scots. A victory in Slovenia will seal that coveted play-off position.
But it was not an evening for the faint of heart at the national stadium. Slovakia, even with 10 men, were a well-drilled outfit who broke expertly on the attack.
In the 19th minute, the keeper showed he was in a defiant mood when he acrobatically flew across his line to push away a header from Christophe Berra after a fabulous right-wing delivery from Griffiths.
The Celtic attacker was next to be thwarted by Debrovka when he raced onto a wonderful pass from Forrest from the centre of midfield.
Grifffiths took a step inside and attempted to curl an effort low into the keeper’s right-hand post. However. he was left astonished as the Slovakian No 1 once again dived to push the ball away.
In the 61st minute, it was Griffiths v Debrovka again and once more the goalie was triumphant. The Hoops dangerman thudded in a ferocious left-foot howitzer from the edge of the box, but the keeper spectacularly punched the ball to safety.
Eight minutes afterwards, Martin left the custodian helpless with a powerful 25-yard bullet, but the ball clattered against the crossbar.
Before it could be cleared, Morrison was presented with a chance, but from six yards, his goalbound effort was beaten away by the shotstopper.
It was all breathtaking stuff. In the 73rd minute, there was an amazing escape again for the visitors.
Griffiths left Debrovka clutching fresh air with a trademark free-kick, but the bar came to the Slovakian’s rescue.
Skrtel brought down Martin about 25 yards out – around the spot where Griffiths had twice been successful against England in June – and the Celt delivered another impeccable shot. But delight swiftly turned to despair as the ball thudded against the face of the woodwork.
And Andrew Robertson, a tireless worker on the left, was another to be foiled by the keeper when his vicious angled drive was fisted away.
And so it looked like ending in heartbreak for the Scots at Hampden. Until Skrtel’s intervention opened the door to the opportunity to mix with the world’s best in Russia next summer.
Now there is just the little matter of winning in Slovenia on Sunday. What possibly could go wrong?
TEAM: Gordon; Tierney (sub: Anya 82), Berra, Mulgrew, Robertson; D.Fletcher (sub: McArthur 79), Bannan; Forrest (sub: Martin 60), Morrison, Phillips; Griffiths.
NEW CQN PODCAST FROM CELTIC PARK ON SATURDAY
Kevin Graham is back with a new CQN Podcast from Saturday. He talks to supporters on the bus on the way to Parkhead, interviews John Paul Taylor outside the ground and captures the atmosphere and action inside the ground before getting some more supporters’ views on the bus home after an eventful afternoon at Celtic Park.
Apologies for a few sweary words in this podcast near the end.