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Holland end luckless Scotland's World Cup hopes
World Cup Euro Qual Gp 9
* Elia 81
* Andy Hunter at Hampden Park
Hope has given way to despair in the hearts of Scotland. The finest display of George Burley's reign could not prevent an ailing World Cup campaign finally flat-lining against Holland, and now it falls to the Scottish Football Association to decide if there is life left in its choice of manager. On the evidence of last night the answer is yes, although Burley would not be in peril nor Scotland out of contention had the evidence arrived earlier.
The luckless Scotland manager had appealed for a performance forged on the nation's best qualities, citing passion, courage, belief and bravery. He received all that and more but a calamitous goal that deflated Hampden with eight minutes to go, when David Weir stretched his 39-year-old body to a long ball and succeeded only in releasing the precocious substitute Eljero Elia for the winner, deprived Scotland of the point they deserved and second place in Group Nine.
Warm applause followed Scotland's devastated players down the tunnel, and the manner of Elia's winner was typical of this campaign. But Burley's remit was to qualify for South Africa when he succeeded Alex McLeish, who also failed to qualify for a major tournament but improved Scotland's world ranking and therefore prospects in the draw for the World Cup. Trailing in third behind Norway represents serious failure, though this performance leaves the SFA with a dilemma.
Despite relentless personal criticism Burley last night insisted he wanted to remain. "We were one step away," he cursed. "It is a similar scenario to the last qualifying campaign. It is up to the SFA but I am looking forward to the next few games as Scotland manager. Everybody needs to improve; the manager, coaches and players. We came close. It's been very competitive, expectations have been very high and we just needed a break tonight but we didn't get it."
Certainly no Scotland manager could have cajoled more from the talent at his disposal than what unfolded against aHolland side that is now the first in the country's illustrious history to qualify with a 100% record. In a breathless first half it was Burley's refusal to rely on defence and his players' relentless endeavour, with Darren Fletcher to the fore, that impressed more than Dutch panache, although the visitors' class in attack ensured there was no respite from the tension.
Holland served an early warning when Dirk Kuyt, later booked for making the most of a Stephen McManus pull inside the Scotland area, struck David Marshall's post in the third minute. Cardiff City's goalkeeper, a late call-up for the injured Craig Gordon, was also in need of redemption after his nerve-wracked display in the 4-0 trouncing in Norway. A fine save from Wesley Sneijder and two superb blocks when one-on-one against Arjen Robben, standing tall and blocking at close range on both occasions provided an improved foundation.
Bert van Marwijk's team secured their place in South Africa for June; their quest for perfection in qualifying plus leftovers from Arsenal's recent defeat at Manchester United had ensured there was no let-up in commitment on their part. Robin van Persie and Fletcher went head-to-head following a scything foul on the Scotland captain, who responded in kind. It was Fletcher Arsène Wenger had in mind when he railed against United's "anti-football" at Old Trafford. Here his only incentive was to avoid an anti-climax.
The United midfielder was outstanding, delivering the big performance he admitted has escaped him too many times under Burley, and it spoke volumes of the Scotland display in the first half that they were only secondary to the Dutch in terms of finesse on the final ball. But they would pay dearly for missed opportunities.
On a night of agonising close calls Scott Brown just failed to convert when he threw himself at Alan Hutton's cross over the Dutch defence. Kenny Miller struck the bar from an acute angle with Holland's stand-in keeper, Michel Vorm, completely deceived, then Steven Naismith, Burley's last bold selection, had a 25-yard drive pushed on to a post by the man from Utrecht. The rebound fell perfectly for Miller, his chance to finally repay his manager's faith had arrived, but Vorm recovered brilliantly to block the effort and Scotland despaired once more.
Holland were an entirely different proposition after the interval, though Miller was again denied by Vorm, and Elia, racing clear on to Weir's slip, rounded Marshall before delivering the last cruel blow for Burley and Scotland. They may not recover together.
Taken from the Guardian/Observer