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17 of 019

Macedonia 1 Scotland 0


SCOTLAND’S Euro 2008 dream was ended by a dodgy free-kick call which left the Tartan Army sick to the pits of their stomachs.

Now the World Cup campaign has started with an equally questionable decision. And all the pain and anguish is flooding back.

Alan Hutton was the innocent party less than a year ago. Now stand-in skipper Stephen McManus has become the fall guy.

But that’s where any comparisons must end. Because this time the players don’t deserve the sympathy of the fans.

Going out in a blaze of glory against world champions Italy at Hampden last year was heroic failure.

This was just failure. No heroics. No excuses. And no option but to win in Iceland on Wednesday night.

Forget the lung-burning 100 degree heat. Scotland actually coped with it better than their Macedonian hosts.

Forget the dodgy award after five minutes which led to Ilcho Naumoski’s winner.

Yes, McManus was harshly judged to have felled Goran Maznov 25 yards out.

Maybe Scotland also had good penalty shouts when Kenny Miller and James McFadden went down after the break.

But Czech ref Pavel Kralovec gave Scotland their fair share of decisions and refused to bend in the face of a partisan home support.

This spirit-crushing defeat — after a pathetic first-half display littered with errors and devoid of passion — was all down to the players.

They started in first gear and didn’t manage to slide into second gear until it was way too late.

From the moment Naumoski pounced on the rebound after Craig Gordon saved Goce Sedloski’s free kick, they were up against it.

They needed a blinding stop from Gordon and a stunning last-ditch tackle by Gary Caldwell to keep the score down. And Burley’s claim that his players were “outstanding” in the second-half would be laughable if the situation wasn’t so serious.

Scotland did stand out - but only in their abject failure to present a real threat to Macedonia keeper Petar Milosevski.

Sub Shaun Maloney cracked a 25-yard drive which forced Milosevski into action a minute from time.

Prior to that, the keeper had only to deal with routine efforts from Barry Robson, McFadden and Scott Brown.

True, Scotland did improve after the break - but they rarely looked as though they could muster an equaliser.

The fact that Gordon and Caldwell were their best players shows which side carved out the better chances.

And, if Burley wants to be judged on his competitive record, he’d better get his act together quickly. Because our bid to reach South Africa 2010 will be over in 48 hours if we stumble to another defeat.

After glorious failure in a star-studded Euro 2008 group, early elimination would be a crippling blow to our credibility.

But the manager isn’t the only man who’ll board the SFA charter to Reykjavik with his reputation on the line.

Chief executive Gordon Smith knows the buck stops with him after gambling on Burley to take the reins.

Terry Butcher, Steven Pressley and even Tommy McLean — who had a direct phone line to the dugout from high in the main stand on Saturday - must rally the troops.

The players, some big names among them, must live up to their star billing by salvaging pride and restoring hope.

McManus, who’s emerged as a lionheart captain of club and country, looked shaky for the second successive weekend.

He was wrongly penalised for the early free kick, but was turned far too easily when Gordon denied Naumoski after the break.

The midfield unit, featuring three SPL title-winners from Celtic and a Champions League winner from Manchester United, under-performed dramatically.

While there’s no doubt McFadden and Miller are our first-choice strikers, they need to rediscover the scoring touch now.

Burley’s record at the helm now makes depressing reading with no wins from four games and just two goals scored.

With Iceland on the crest of a wave after a 2-2 draw in Norway, they won’t make it any easier than Macedonia.

So it’s up to Scotland to raise their game, find a creative spark and finally deliver quality balls into the box.

They could scarcely have envisaged such a dreadful start as Brown carelessly lost the ball in his own half and McManus was penalised as Maznov hit the turf.

Sedloski’s free kick deflected through the wall and produced a stunning stop from Gordon.

The keeper deserved better than to see a line of Macedonians waiting to convert the rebound after he’d touched the ball on to the post.

Naumoski was first in the queue to score and plunge the 1,000 Scottish fans into the depths of despair.

If the Tartan Army expected a rousing response, they were to be bitterly disappointed.

Brown typified the problems as he struggled badly.

His crazy collision with McFadden in front of the dugouts just summed up the day.

The introductions of Kris Commons and Maloney breathed some much-needed life into Scotland.

Miller was chopped in the box before McFadden fell at the feet of Milosevski in a second-half flashpoint.

But Gordon was still the busier keeper and his one-handed save from Veliche Shumolikoski was breathtaking.

As the sun beat down relentlessly, Scotland’s feelgood factor melted. France is forgotten and the Italian job consigned to the history books.

Now George is going to Iceland — and he can’t afford to freeze.

The Sun

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