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7 of 019

Scotland wilt in scorching Skopje

World Cup Euro Qual Gp 9
Macedonia 1

* Naumoski 5

Scotland 0

* Patrick Glenn
* The Observer,
* Saturday September 6 2008

Scotland have discovered that opening a World Cup campaign in the blistering heat of Skopje in summer is football's equivalent of beginning an overland assault on Moscow in the depth of winter. George Burley's palefaces wilted in the heat as Macedonia secured the victory which leaves the Scots already long odds-against achieving the top-two place in Group 9 that would allow them to dream of an appearance in South Africa in 2010.

In truth, the margin of defeat flattered Burley's side, the concession of the winning goal from Ilco Naumoski as early as the fifth minute presaging another 85 in which Srecko Katanec's players were mostly in the ascendancy, denied a more comprehensive victory by some exceptional goalkeeping from Craig Gordon. Iceland await in Reykjavik on Wednesday, and anything less than victory in the second leg of the double-header will surely put an end to the Scots' interest in a tournament for which they have not qualified for 10 years.

That calamitous start to the match had a predictably inhibiting effect on the Scots, the dread of losing another goal introducing a tentativeness that was in stark contrast to the swelling confidence and ambition of the home team. It would be no surprise that it should take the visitors 30 minutes to contrive the first hint of a genuine threat, or that it should be produced by James McFadden on one of the rare occasions when he was provided with the ball. Paul Hartley and Barry Robson combined neatly to move the ball inside from the right and, when McFadden received the final pass, he snaked past a couple of defenders and finished with a low, angular shot from a confined space, the ball rolling into the arms of Petar Miloševski.

It was an indicator of the scarcity of forward movement by the Scots that such a relatively minor incident should be acclaimed as something of a breakthrough by the 1,000 or so travelling fans gathered in the paddock behind the home goal. Burley's plan to make his team difficult to beat had fallen apart at its first test and the second part of the strategy, to exert pressure on the Macedonians from middle-to-forward areas, would be made immeasurably more difficult as the Scots' confidence would wane in direct proportion to the heightening of their opponents' self-belief.

The free kick which brought Naumoski's goal had seemed a harsh decision, as Stephen McManus would have made no contact with Goran Maznov had not the striker trailed his foot in a clearly calculated attempt to win the award. Goran Pandev touched the ball short to Maznov, who stopped it for the advancing Goce Sedloski. The Macedonia captain's low drive from 20 yards was low and true, but Craig Gordon made an excellent save, diving low to tip the ball on to the post. However, Naumoski followed up to send his drive over the line from six yards.

Appropriately encouraged, the home side asserted a clear superiority in midfield, where Velice Sumolikoski was the main man, constantly in possession, brushing past challenges and sending passes right, left and through the middle. When he supplied Robert Petrov on the left and the latter's cross found Pandev, the striker's left-foot volley on the turn, powerfully struck, would surely have given Gordon a serious problem had it not been blocked by the head of Gary Caldwell.

The failure of Darren Fletcher, Paul Hartley, Scott Brown and, to a lesser extent, Barry Robson, to impose themselves in the midfield left McFadden and Kenny Miller in attack feeling as though they had been ostracised. If there was a distinct improvement in the amount of possession taken by the Scots in the second half, there remained the difficulty of creating authentic opportunities, the Macedonians' nominal three-man defence complemented by industrious midfield players, ever willing to cover the ground that would help them close the space around the visitors.

A glimpse was seen by Brown when he drove in from the right, played the ball forward to Miller, took the return, and hit his first-time drive from just inside the 18-yard line straight into the arms of Milosevski. There would also be a wicked cross from Gary Naysmith on the left, with which McFadden just failed to connect four yards from goal.

But, seemingly content to play a more containing game than they had before the interval, the home side still managed to carry more menace towards Gordon, the big goalkeeper required to complete two exceptional saves that prevented the decisive second goal. The first came from an astonishing volley by Sumolikoski after Pandev's corner kick from the right had been headed out by Hartley. The Ipswich man hit a ferocious drive from 30 yards which Gordon, seeing late, managed to touch over the bar by moving quickly to his left. The goalkeeper would repeat his work soon after when a long throw from the left reached Naumoski and the striker volleyed on the turn from just eight yards.

Burley's attempt to pluck at least a point from the match involved the replacement of Miller with Kris Boyd and the removal of Hartley for Kris Commons, but the gesture had seemed doomed to futility long before it was even made.

Match rating: Six

Taken from the Guardian/Observer

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