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Scotland get caught cold in Skopje heat
The irony was that Scotland finished the game strongly, infinitely stronger than the Macedonians, who dropped deeper and deeper and ran the risk of a late sucker punch. In the heat, Scotland's relentless pressing, especially in the last 10 minutes, was impressive but so much damage had been done already by that point. Perhaps fatal damage as far as qualifying goes.
It was a sorry spectacle, really, in a sad excuse for a stadium on a day of boiling temperatures. Agreeing to play Macedonia away on the opening day of qualifying will continue to be the subject of heated debate. Even when it was announced, the policy of beginning with two away matches looked foolhardy; now it looks plain suicidal.
Dear me, it was a tough afternoon, with the most woeful beginning for Scotland, a throwback to the sleepy, lacklustre days the nation had hoped they'd left behind. In the fifth minute, a free-kick, awarded a little unjustly against Stephen McManus, but still a distance from Craig Gordon's net. If the Scots were alive they'd have dealt with the situation, they'd have formed their wall with some degree of ballast, they'd have reacted to the loose ball with more awareness, they'd have avoided an eminently avoidable goal.
As it was, the free-kick was tapped to Goce Sedloski, the veteran defender with 87 caps to his name, and he had a crack. It wasn't what you would call a howitzer, far from it. But it worked its way past Gordon's wall all the same and had the goalkeeper at full stretch. He got a finger-tip to it and pushed it on to his right-hand post. Now it was up to his teammates to finish the job. They failed dismally. The ball bounced off the woodwork and there was Ilco Naumoski to slide it home.
The unimaginable nightmare had therefore come true. Scotland now had to chase the game in the searing heat, a scenario so depressing at the outset that it was barely worth thinking about. And worse again was the fact that Scotland didn't look in any condition to chase anything, bar the free-running Macedonians that constantly threatened to score a second and truly deliver the knockout blow. The Scots had problems all over the place but, principally, out wide where the combinations of Graham Alexander and Scott Brown on the right and Gary Naysmith and Barry Robson on the left were always vulnerable to attack.
Macedonia found gaps there, lots of them. Had they a bit more quality they'd have exploited them and this thing would have been over by the break. Shell-shocked and disorganised, Scotland afforded their hosts all the time and space and chances to get the job finished nice and early. In reply, the visitors offered nothing but speculative pots from distance and an increasingly haggard demeanour.
There were exceptions to the Scottish malaise. Gary Caldwell was switched-on and needed to be. In the 24th minute, Goran Pandev, the Lazio striker at whose altar the locals worship, took Robert Petrov's cross from the left first time and smashed in a convincing-looking volley, only stopped in its tracks after Caldwell put his body in the way of it. That wouldn't be the last timely intervention the Celtic defender was to make.
Still we waited for something from Scotland. At last, on the half hour, James McFadden, an isolated figure up until then, finally got the ball at his feet. He was inside the Macedonian penalty area, skipping right to left, trying to rid himself of the giants in red tracking his every move. He had a cut but one of the big beasts, the excellent Igor Mitreski, charged it down. That was Scotland's chance. One fleeting moment of hope and then it was back to the established rhythm. Lots of Macedonian pressure and some frightening moments for Burley's team.
A few minutes after McFadden's near-miss, the home support screamed for a penalty, Goran Maznov going down under a challenge from Gordon. Scotland survived that one and the one after, a charging run on goal from Maznov, snuffed out quite brilliantly by Caldwell just as the striker was to about lash in his shot. Even then, the moment did not pass until Pandev made a frightful hash of burying the breaking ball.
Doubtless Burley's been in some tight spots at the halfway point in games in the past. Here was another, maybe the biggest of all. Lose this and was there any way back in the group, any hope? He had some fast talking to do and for a little while it looked like it had some kind of impact. Scotland came out a little brighter than before, a Robson corner caused Macedonia problems, a Brown shot forced a save out of Petar Milosevski, a sweet Naysmith cross created a chance for Darren Fletcher, but he blew it.
But all the while there was the threat of a second for Macedonia, a killer punch, a reminder coming in the shape of a drive just short of the hour-mark from Velice Sumulikoski that Gordon did superbly to push out for a corner and a second, a massive scare, not long after when Naumoski swivelled close to the six-yard box and thumped a shot straight at the Scotland goalkeeper. A few feet either side of Gordon and it was a goal. As it was, Gordon beat it out.
As the half wore on, Burley threw on Kris Commons and Shaun Maloney and Kris Boyd. Commons had some bright spots, Maloney forced a flying save out of Milosevski, McFadden went down in the box and screamed for a penalty and got booked for his protest. It was seat-of-the-pants stuff now. Brave but ultimately futile. Scotland were beaten and the harsh truth is that they deserved to be. Long road back now for them. Long road indeed.
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Naumoski goal (4 mins)
Goran Maznov wins a dubious free-kick 25 yards out after the referee adjudges Stephen McManus to have fouled him. Craig Gordon saves brilliantly, touching Goce Sedloski's free-kick onto the post, but cannot prevent Ilco Naumoski netting the rebound.
Scotland chance (54 mins)
Darren Fletcher (above) almost brings Scotland level, but he just fails to get on the end of a cross from Gary Naysmith. Kenny Miller is unable to convert the loose ball from a tight angle.
Penalty claim denied (71 mins)
Kenny Miller goes down in the box and appeals to the referee. The ball breaks to James McFadden and he is brought down by the keeper but again the claim is waved away. McFadden is booked for protesting.
How Scotland fared in the first matches of previous World Cup qualifying campaigns. During the 1978 qualifiers they lost the opener to Czechoslovakia and still made it to Argentina
2006 WORLD CUP
Scotland 0, Slovenia 0. Didn't qualify
2002 WORLD CUP
Latvia 0, Scotland 1. Didn't qualify
1998 WORLD CUP
Austria 0, Scotland 0. Qualified
1994 WORLD CUP
Switzerland 3, Scotland 1. Didn't qualify
1990 WORLD CUP
Norway 1, Scotland 2. Qualified
1986 WORLD CUP
Scotland 3, Iceland 0. Qualified
1982 WORLD CUP
Sweden 0, Scotland 1. Qualified
1978 WORLD CUP
Czechoslovakia 2, Scotland 0. Qualified
1974 WORLD CUP
Denmark 1, Scotland 4. Qualified
Taken from the Scotsman