Two equalising goals with the final touch of each half saw Scotland crash out of Euro 2016 at Hampden in the most agonising of circumstance.
Matt Ritchie’s strike at the end of the first half, to make the score 1-1 had made the improbable possible. Steven Fletcher’s goal for 2-1 gave hope, but Robert Lewandowski’s brace, with 90 minutes separating them in the opening and closing minutes, blew Scotland out of the reckoning on the night, never mind what Ireland and the Poles do on Sunday.
It was the most agonising of finishes. As the ball bounced off both posts, running along David Marshall’s goal-line in the 94th minute, it all hung in the balance. It still was in the balance even if the Bayern striker hadn’t converted with Shane Long’s goal in Dublin against Germany leaving Scotland hanging on the result in the Ireland v Poland fixture on Sunday.
That match is still pivotal in the group, but Scotland are not in the reckoning, despite a spirited performance and two stunning goals which lit up Hampden on the pitch, while the Polish fans lit it up off the field with bright red flares during the opening anthems. If it had come down to the musical performance of each country, Scotland would have shaded the game. The anthems were less tuneful, more battle-cries.And take it they almost did. And battle for it they did.
Flower of Scotland was a rousing retort to the Polish anthem belted out by huge sections of white and red clad supporters split into three chunks of Hampden. The lone piper on the roof of the North Stand allowed the Tartan Army to conduct its own second verse, pausing for a moment and not restarting.
Neither did Scotland. They kicked off but simply didn’t start.
As the home side nervously booted the ball, Poland seized their opportunity. Their first opportunity and that’s all it takes Robert Lewandowski.
Russell Martin conceded possession and Poland turned it on him. The Bayern forward slipped a little deeper, which gave his turn of pace a second’s headstart. Even without it Martin wouldn’t have caught him as he raced through –staying in-line and onside, took a pass and tucked it in at David Marshall’s near post.
The piper’s notes still rung in the ears. The game was just 139 seconds old.
It wasn’t in the plans and Scotland looked like they were ad-libbing for quite a while and by the time they’d strung some decent moves together, Poland had done the same and could easily have been further ahead.
Through balls exploiting Scotland’s sluggish turn of pace were utilised by the Poles and one found Blaszczykowski free on the right of the box but he pulled his shot wide shortly before the half hour.
Scotland had had a half-chance when a James Forrest cut-back fell nicely to Steven Naismith but his shot was blocked by Milik.Scotland did manage to carve out a couple of chances, though none fell again to Everton’s in-form forward.
Alan Hutton won a handy free-kick in the ways that only Alan Hutton knows how. It was a typical charge from the right-back and hewas ajudged to be impeded in his meaningless progress across the pitch, but Scotland had a set-piece 25-yards and central to Lukas Fabianski’s goal. Ritchie blasted it, it deflected and fell to Grant Hanley. The Blackburn centre half, more than a stopper than a scorer, scufed his effort well wide.
Ritchie created another opening with a charge down the right but his sweeping low cross was too close to the goalkeeper and too far from Steven Fletcher sliding in at speed.
Ritchie though, was finding range. With the last kick of the ball he let fly on the turn with a blast from 30 yards that flew into the top corner and the improbable began to look just unlikely. But Scotland had more in store.
Poland burst forward from the start but this time Marshall was equal to the effort, and the half-time talk appeared to be centred on Lewandowski. Scotland silenced the striker in the second half, and not too subtly either.
Scott Brown picked up a yellow card for laying one on him, and Alan hutton aimed to do the same but fortunately missed with a two-footed lunge on the frontman. The tactic worked. Lewandowski continued to remonstarte with Grant Hanley for an off the ball squabble and as Arkadiussz Milik looked for him, he was robbed and Scotland flowed forward. A ball to the right of the box was despatched by Steven Fletcher and Hampden hit delirium mode.
For half an hour Scotland had to hang on and David Marshall beat out a drive on 66 minutes, while Fletcher headed another chance straight at Fabianski.
Then Shane Long scored for Ireland in Germany. The enthusiasm remained, but the excitement dissipated as news spread.
Scotland hung on, the fans stayed to the end. Four minutes were added, but Lewandowski did a Matt Ritchie and turned in the ball with the final kick of the second half, off both posts no less. It went in and Scotland went out.
Scotland: Marshall, Hutton, Whittaker, Martin, Hanley, Forrest, Fletcher, Brown, Fletcher, Naismith, Ritchie.
Poland: Fabianski, Glik, Piszczek, Pazdan, Maczynski, Krychowiak, Grosicki, Rybus, Blaszczykowski, Milik, Lewandowski