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Just too hot to handle
Macedonia 1 - 0 Scotland
IN THE searing heat of Skopje yesterday Scotland succumbed to the sort of horrible, sobering result which felt like a door being closed on the 2010 World Cup.
The aftermath of just 90 minutes' play is no time to be writing any obituaries and Scotland have ample opportunities to recover, but they were tame and unconvincing when falling to Macedonia here. Those wins over France seem like a long time ago.
Just five minutes into their opening qualifying campaign they shot themselves in the foot, presenting Ilcho Naumoski with the chance to score what proved to be the only goal of a fraught, edgy match.
Only briefly did they look capable of cancelling it out and how Macedonia revelled in one of their finest results. When they beat Croatia here in the Euro 2008 qualifiers it did not matter to either team; the repercussions of this result for Scotland may be profound.
Manager George Burley has still to win a match. Starting in the second qualifier in Iceland on Wednesday he must inject creativity and imagination into a team which scores too infrequently and can seem flat-footed and square in defence.
The question on everyone's lips in Skopje was whether he was capable of that. It was unfair to judge him on a winless sequence of friendlies, but yesterday's display added to a worrying body of evidence. Scotland have lost the momentum built under Walter Smith and Alex McLeish.
In the days before the game Burley had said "I won't be taking the team to Skopje until Friday because it's too hot to train there", which seemed to defy the accepted principle of having to acclimatise to unfamiliar conditions.
That became a worry from the moment the players disembarked the flight just 24 hours before the game to be hit by suffocating, clammy heat, and kick-off time yesterday was just as bad.
This was never going to be an environment in which Scotland would feel comfortable. Landlocked by Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece, the World Cup began in a place where it felt like hard work simply to breathe, let alone face the unknown quantity of Macedonia.
Their form guide was unfathomable. In their Euro 2008 qualifiers they drew in England and beat Croatia at home, yet in the end they were not remotely close to qualifying.
The venue and status of the opposition was reminiscent of the tie in Georgia at the end of the last qualifying campaign, and the meek surrender as McLeish's team fell 2-0 and did untold damage to the attempt to reach Euro 2008.
Here the harm was immediate. The game had still to find its rhythm when Scotland were punished for precisely the sort of sloppy play they knew to avoid but apparently could not.
Scott Brown was careless with a pass, not for the last time in the match, and that drew Stephen McManus into a 50-50 tackle in which he conceded a free-kick just outside the penalty area.
Macedonia took it short for Goce Sedloski to unleash a vicious shot which Craig Gordon did well to push on to the post. The rebound flashed back past him to Naumoski who buried it low to Gordon's left before any Scotland defender could react.
It was the sort of avoidable, carelessly-conceded goal which meant disappointment was equalled by frustration, and Scotland would go on to commit many more unforced mistakes in what was always an awkward, unsatisfying performance.
Macedonia were unremarkable in terms of quality but they had enough substance about them to come closer to adding to their lead than surrendering it.
A ball over the top put Goran Maznov in behind Gary Caldwell and although the defender made a saving tackle, Macedonia could still have scored and there was relief when Goran Pandev could only slip a weak rebound into Gordon's body.
Maznov did not deceive the referee when he went down under a Gordon challenge in an attempt to win a penalty, but in other respects Macedonia were convincing. Their front three, the Lazio striker Pandev in particular, were eager and mobile.
In midfield Brown was poor, Darren Fletcher and Paul Hartley could not impose themselves and Barry Robson was frustrated by weak finishing as he attempted a free-kick and later a low drive, although he deserved credit for having the confidence to try.
Too often Scotland looked timid and one-paced. Only in the briefest patches did they take control against opposition which will surely be given a far more thorough examination against group favourites Holland here on Wednesday.
Scotland's strikers saw too little of the ball. James McFadden dribbled across the penalty area to make space for a shot that was blocked, and later he tried to catch the goalkeeper out with a surprise shot that earned a corner.
Neither of those were better than the chance which passed by early in the second half when Gary Naysmith's sweeping cross flew past Fletcher's head in the six-yard box. It was a big moment and Fletcher knew it; he held his head in his hands.
By then Macedonia were being pinned back although they remained a periodic attacking force themselves. When a corner broke to Veliche Sumolikoski he cracked a thunderous drive that would have found the net had Gordon not flashed up a hand to knock it over the bar.
Gordon was Scotland's best player, a fact reinforced by his point-blank save to deny Naumoski a second goal after McManus and Caldwell gave him the space to hit a shot.
McFadden was booked for dissent as Scotland's performance descended into frustration, although he made a strong claim for a penalty.
Burley's response was to send on Kris Commons for Hartley, Shaun Maloney for Robson and Kris Boyd for Miller. The substitutes were up against a different Macedonia now: sitting far deeper and intent on trying to see out their lead. Maloney had a late drive well savedn as Macedonia presented a wall Scotland could not breach.
Macedonia substitutes: Trajanov for Naumoski 68, Grncarov for Petrov 79, Tasevski for Pandev 82 Not used: Pachovski, Polozhani, Demiri, Ristikj Booked: Naumoski 5, Sumolikoski 26, Pandev 62
Scotland substitutes: Commons for Hartley 65, Maloney for Robson 76, Boyd for Miller 80 Not used: McGregor, Broadfoot, Stewart, Berra Booked: McFadden 71
Referee: P Kralovec (Czech Rep) Att: 12,000
Taken from the Sunday Herald