A case of Proud Edward’s Army in Zagreb
07/06/2013 § 4 Comments
Scotland have always had a reputation of doing things the hard way. We always seem to rise to the occasion and perform better against, what seems on paper, stronger opposition. All of that was once again underlined this past Friday night in Zagreb.
Gordon Strachan led his troops and The Tartan Army to the Croatian capital and Maksimir Stadium with many predicting the Scots would quite simply be blown away. Over two thirds of the way through this World Cup qualifying campaign and Scotland have already been eliminated from making it to Rio 2014, after a disastrous start to the Group A fixtures under previous manager Craig Levein. Stuttering draws at home to Serbia and Macedonia were followed by two embarrassing defeats, both home and away, to rivals and lower-ranked Wales, as well as a toothless loss in Belgium being sandwiched between the Welsh double header.
When Strachan came into the job, he realized and outlined that a rebuilding process would have to commence. Despite an encouraging opening friendly win against Estonia, nothing less was clearer following Strachan’s first competitive game in charge, which incidentally was the Wales game at home. A Grant Hanley header in first half injury time was cancelled out by an Aaron Ramsay penalty and a Hal Robson-Kanu goal in the second half on a sleet and snowy night at Hampden.
Next up was a miserable 2-0 defeat in Serbia where Scotland only really had a Jordan Rhodes half chance to count for as attacking threat. If Strachan didn’t quite know he was up against it, he did so then. What exactly SFA performance director Mark Wotte is actively doing in his job is beyond me, but that’s a topic for another article. What former Aberdeen star Strachan has done since walking through the Hampden doors is install a freshness in terms of new blood into the national team setup. Brought in has been the likes of Gary Mackay-Steven, Stuart Armstrong, Liam Bridcutt, Leigh Griffiths, Stephen Hammell and Ryan Jack to go alongside the re-emergence of darting direct winger Chris Burke- all of whom Strachan potentially envisions as being key players for the Euro 2016 qualifiers. Prior to then, the Scots headed to Croatia with pride at stake, with seemingly nobody giving them a chance- except themselves.
Before the game, arrogant and outspoken home striker Ivica Olic predicted to the press a 3-0 scoreline in favour of the hosts. Manager Igor Stimac went two better, predicting a 5-0 breeze and joking that Scotland “wouldn’t get past the halfway line.” If the visitors were looking for something to motivate them beforehand in what was now a meaningless game, they had been presented with it there and then.
The game was won thanks to an opportunist goal from Robert Snodgrass on 27 minutes. Shaun Maloney collected a Leigh Griffiths knockdown just inside the Croatian half and bullishly marauded forward. A fortunate ricochet off a Croatian defender sent Snodgrass in behind and allowed the Norwich man to stick out a leg to prod home past the advancing Stipe Pletikosa. Griffiths was on his first international start after a remarkable goalscoring season back home with boyhood heroes Hibernian in Leith. That goal sent The Tartan Army into ecstasy and Strachan couldn’t quite believe his luck.
Despite a sense of over-confidence from the Group A favourites before the match, Croatia failed to make Allan McGregor make a meaningful save throughout the 90 minutes, with their best chance coming midway through the second half as Olic sent a left foot cross across the goalmouth and Mario Mandzukic, fresh from his Champions League Final goal at Wembley, was just inches away from tapping home into an empty net.
Strachan’s team defended like lions, epitomizing the attitude the gaffer adopted in his hayday, with a disciplined shape suffocating and frustrating the hosts. A makeshift back four of Alan Hutton, Russell Martin, Hanley and Steven Whittaker were outstanding in protecting McGregor’s goal alongside holding midfielder James McArthur. The win brought back memories of James McFadden’s sensational winner in Paris back in September 2007, against the mighty French, on a night where Scotland once again proved that David really can defeat Goliath.
This latest win brings about a new sense of hope- but we’ve been there before. What will also remain, in the short term at least, is a small feeling of satisfaction amongst The Tartan Army following what was notably, and crucially, Strachan’s first competitive win in charge as Scotland manager over a team ranked fourth overall in the FIFA World Rankings- quite the feat.
He described the performance as “one full of heart.” What Scotland need to do now is continue this spirit for the rest of the World Cup fixtures and into those for the 2016 European championships. And if we can do that, we may well be in with a fighting chance of qualification back to a major championships for the first time since France 98.
Perhaps coincidentally, the 2016 Euros are also being held in France. Many a Scotland supporter will hoping a true sense of Deja vu will be on the cards.
Tagged: Croatia, Euro 2016, Gordon Strachan, Grant Hanley, Hampden Park, Ivica Olic, James McArthur, Leigh Griffiths, Maksimir Stadion, Robert Snodgrass, Russell Martin, Scotland, Shaun Maloney, World Cup, World Cup Qualifying, Zagreb