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8 of 019

Scotland trip up at starting line following World Cup defeat to Macedonia in Skopje

Macedonia (1) 1 Scotland (0) 0

By Roddy Forsyth in Skopje

Scotland's hopes of reaching the 2010 World Cup finals suffered a serious blow almost before their opening qualifier against Macedonia had got properly under way. Perhaps daunted by the prospect of surviving the heat – the temperature inside the City Stadium was above 90 degrees for much of the proceedings – the Scots fell behind when Ilco Naumoski netted on the rebound from a badly defended free-kick struck by Goce Sedloski and stumbled until the second half, when a surge of energy and resolution exposed Macedonia as well-organised lightweights.

Scotland could not say as much for themselves before the break, with few players performing to anything like their natural level. Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown were particularly disappointing in midfield and there was next to nothing to trouble Petar Milosevski in the Macedonian goal. The belated Scottish revival should have been rewarded with a penalty kick when Milosevski hooked James McFadden’s leg away with a boot across the ankle, but the Czech referee, Pavel Kralovec, who may have been unsighted, denied the claim.

George Burley has now gone four games without a win since he took over as Scotland manager at the end of January and the pressure is on to kick-start the qualifying campaign with a win over Iceland in Reykjavik on Wednesday.

The first sign that the afternoon might be fraught emerged with the realisation that between 1,500 and 2,000 Tartan Army travellers were being refused admission to the stadium despite the pleadings of the Scottish Football Association, whose chief executive, Gordon Smith, told The Sunday Telegraph: “We pointed out that our fans have an immaculate record and that, in any case, there were clearly substantial areas of the stadium without any fans at all. But the Macedonians were adamant that they would not let the extra Scottish supporters into the ground.”

Nevertheless, Burley’s players were greeted by an impressive and vivid display of Saltire flags and a boisterous visiting support who were, however, soon silenced by the most unwelcome turn of events. One major concern for Burley and his players was the callowness of the referee who, at the age of 31, was in charge of only his fourth international and had been suspended for six games by his home association last season after a disastrous performance in a domestic league match.

Kralovec was not duped by Macedonian attempts to win cheap free-kicks by dropping readily under challenges, but they earned one legitimately after Scott Brown lost possession on the halfway line to put Scotland on the back foot. Goran Maznov, fastened on to the downfield clearance and was caught on the turn by Stephen McManus 20 yards out.

This was the situation the Scots had been briefed to avoid because of the Macedonians’ known skill at set-piece play. They duly demonstrated this with a practised routine in which Goran Pandev rolled the ball to Velice Sumolikoski, who stopped it for Sedloski to drive through the wall.

Craig Gordon hurled himself to his right to parry the ball on to the post. The goalkeeper was entitled to expect that his defenders would cover the rebound but he was left utterly exposed as three red jerseys converged on the scene. Naumoski was first to reach the ball, turning it back across the straining goalkeeper and over the unguarded line. The Macedonian was promptly shown the yellow card for climbing the fence behind Gordon’s goal, but the real caution was administered to Scotland, who looked tentative and remained so until the interval.

Between times they survived a venomous volley from Pandev which caught Gary Caldwell full in the gut, plus howls for a penalty kick when Maznov cut into the Scottish box and went sprawling as Gordon dived to tip the ball away from his toe. The referee, though, was acquitted on any possible charge of being a homer as he waved the native protests away.

Scotland’s World Cup ambitions were crying out for a display of character, but other than a couple of intermittent flashes from McFadden – one a shuffle past three opponents for a blocked drive, the other an opportunist shot from a throw-in that forced Milosevski to spoon the ball around the post – there was little to raise the spirits.

Matters changed sharply after the interval as the Scots exerted pressure with direct running. Macedonia remained dangerous – Gordon produced one world-class save from Sumolikoski’s vicious drive and another crucial block from Naumoski – but significantly it was the home players who began to suffer cramps in the closing minutes.

By that stage, though, it was the Scots whose qualifying campaign had got off to a limping start.

Taken from

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