The wait is over. After 22 years, Scotland will finally be represented at an international tournament again. David Marshall’s dramatic penalty save from Aleksandar Mitrovic not only downed Serbia to secure a place at Euro 2020, but also meant that the thrill of watching one’s nation compete at a major finals can be experienced by a whole new generation of Scottish football supporters.
Marshall is one of the few members of Steve Clarke’s squad who was not barely out of nappies when a dismal 3-0 defeat to Morocco in Saint-Etienne sent Scotland home from the 1998 World Cup. Only a handful of his team-mates have any recollection of that summer but now, they have the chance to make memories of their own. Not that they will forget this evening in a hurry.
Ryan Christie appeared to have written his name into Scottish football folklore by establishing an early second-half lead that lasted until the 90th minute. Scotland were comfortable and on the precipice of next summer’s Euros until, suddenly, they weren’t. Luka Jovic’s free header on a corner forced extra-time and challenged a nation to pick itself up off the floor.
They did, just. Scotland safely negotiated extra-time and then scored five faultless penalties, leaving all the pressure on Mitrovic. Marshall had got a hand to a couple of the Serbian efforts, only for the ball to pass through his limp fingers. This time, those fingers were firm. The 35-year-old waited as his team-mates rushed towards him, checking he had not strayed off his line. He had not. Scotland had qualified.
As if that was not enough, two of their three group games will be held in Glasgow at Hampden Park. The third will be against England at Wembley. With Croatia and the Czech Republic also waiting in Group D, the bookmakers may favour Scotland to repeat 1998’s wooden spoon finish. Yet even after this late collapse and close escape, Clarke has built something quietly impressive and a side will not travel to make up the numbers but to make history.
Scotland began brightly, and even if goal-scoring opportunities were few and far between, any nervousness or apprehension among the travelling party was settled by a competitive first half. Lyndon Dykes has taken impressively to the international stage since being handed an opportunity by Clarke just three months ago, and the Queens Park Rangers striker made a constant nuisance of himself, even if his team-mates struggled to find a final telling pass.
The Rajko Mitic – Red Star Belgrade’s home and known locally as ‘the Marakana’ – was shorn of its usual febrile atmosphere by the pandemic and Serbia struggled for intensity without 53,000 hoarse Balkan voices behind them. One Sasa Lukic shot narrowly skimmed wide of the far post after some promising build-up play was the only notable moment that the hosts managed. Then again, one tame John McGinn effort was all that went the other way.
Still, there was nothing for Scotland to fear and Clarke’s side emerged for the second half with a fresh sense of purpose.
Dykes was influential again, leading the move that should have given the visitors the lead. He came inside from the right along the edge of the penalty area, pulling several Serbian defenders across, then delayed a square pass for the onrushing Andy Robertson. It was the type of late arrival that the Scotland captain specialises in for Liverpool, but somehow, with the whole of the goal to aim at, he blazed over.
Was that the chance? Robertson’s bowed head and slow trudge back into position suggested it might be and yet a minute later, they led. A loose pass by Filip Kostic was intercepted by Callum McGregor, who passed into the feet of Christie. Even after evading two Serbian tackles with a neat shimmy, there was very little space for a shot. And yet Christie found it, squeezing the ball through the gap, against the upright and in.
It should have been enough. It wasn’t. Serbia inevitably came again, but without the pressure required to break Scotland’s resolve until the dying embers of normal time.
Jovic had already fired one warning shot with a header that dropped narrowly wide of the post. Having won a late corner, he would not miss the target for a second time. Scott McTominay’s momentary lapse of concentration proved fatal, allowing the Real Madrid striker to move into space, connect without contest and guide the ball over David Marshall’s helpless hand.
Unsurprisingly, Serbia had the better of the extra half-hour. Dykes had been withdrawn seven minutes from full time and his absence was suddenly felt, with no physical presence to hold up Scotland’s increasingly frantic defensive clearances. Their resolve held, at least, though they had lost momentum to such a degree that the uncertainty of a penalty shoot-out was welcome.
Five perfect kicks – including redemption for McTominay – made it look easy, leaving Marshall to be the hero.