Scotland have booked a place at the European championship next year by beating Serbia on penalties on Thursday, reaching a major tournament for the first time in 22 years. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, with Ryan Christie on target for the visitors in the 52nd minute, and Luka Jovic equalizing at the death.
Physical game suited the Scots
It’s fair to say that the game hardly saw any brilliant football being played by either side, but Scotland seemed on top of things for most of the contest, and from that angle, they completely deserved the luck which swung their way in the shootout.
Steve Clarke’s men worked extremely hard throughout, showing great desire to end their nation’s barren run in terms of major tournaments. Declan Gallagher, Callum McGregor and John McGinn particularly stood out in that aspect, fighting with grit for every ball and mostly outmuscling their opponents. Gallagher had a particularly difficult task, battling with Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic for 120 minutes. He successfully limited the impact of the Championship top scorer from last season, often forcing him to leave the central attacking area to try and make something happen from elsewhere, which is something the Fulham striker rarely does with any success.
Scotland don’t really have any creative midfielders in their ranks, but they used their qualities to great effect otherwise. They pressed high and closed down spaces and channels very efficiently all through the two halves, completely stifling Serbia’s midfielders. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Dusan Tadic were supposed to be the main creative force for the hosts, but the Lazio midfielder mostly spent his energy in difficult physical battles, while the Ajax winger simply couldn’t make anything happen in the spaces he had at his disposal – rarely any.
McGinn and Lyndon Dykes, and later Ollie McBurnie too, were a constant menace for the Serbian defenders and deep-sitting midfielders whenever Ljubisa Tumbakovic’s team tried to play out from the back, forcing them to go long towards Mitrovic far too often. That only helped the 6’5″ Gallagher shine in defence. There was hardly any way through the flanks either, with Filip Kostic having a really poor game on the left, well reflected by giving the ball away in a dangerous area for the opening goal, and Darko Lazovic on the right mostly no match for Liverpool’s Andy Robertson and Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney.
Serbian midfield issues
The Serbs seemed to be missing Luka Milivojevic in the middle of the park, with the Crystal Palace man testing positive for the coronavirus and consequently ruled out. Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic has retired from international football, and it seems fair to say that with his experience, the 32-year-old two-time Premier League winner would have probably been of great help in this game had he not done so. Milinkovic-Savic’s impact was very limited, while Nikola Maksimovic and Sasa Lukic mostly failed in one of their primary tasks – to help the back line beat the opposition press and take the ball forward.
Things looked much better for Serbia when Tumbakovic brought on Filip Mladenovic for Kostic around the hour mark and switch to four at the back, with Nemanja Gudelj moving into midfield, but one can’t help wondering if Marko Grujic would have made a difference had he not been left on the bench for the whole contest. Mladenovic did, however, provide some penetration down the left flank and put in several potentially useful crosses, including the one from the corner from which Luka Jovic eventually scored the equalizer.
Jovic on target
Not that he did much outside that moment, but bringing Jovic on from the bench paid off for Tumbakovic (at least for a while). The Real Madrid man came on for Maksimovic with 20 minutes to go, and used his know-how to be in the right place at the right time and to place his header beyond the reach of the solid David Marshall in Scotland goal. He was also accurate from the spot in the shootout.
Jovic has had a torrid time in Madrid since his €60m switch from Eintracht Frankfurt, but this goal could potentially help him raise the level of confidence when he returns to the Spanish capital. Zinedine Zidane will certainly have been pleased with his backup striker getting on the scoresheet; it seams Real need every bit of good news they can get at the moment.
Mitrovic’s night to forget
It will have been an evening loaded with frustration for ‘Mitro’. As has been said, his well-documented strength and aerial prowess were useless against the physically dominant opposition, and once that fails, there’s really not much he can offer. It could be argued that he lacked proper support from his teammates throughout, especially Milinkovic-Savic and Tadic, and he might have benefited from the pace of Filip Djuricic had the winger not been another one tested positive for the coronavirus.
In the end, missing the final penalty of the shootout seemed only as the thing that rounded the evening off for him, making it even more frustrating that it already was before. There were some argument that Marshall had stepped off the line too early when he saved it, but there was nothing to do once the save had been allowed to stand.
When all said and done, the sheer desire the visitors showed and the right tactical approach they applied from the start make their qualification for the tournament, scheduled for next year, deserved. It has been some career for Robertson, who capped his Champions League and Premier League medals off with captaining his nation to their first major tournament after so long.
As for Serbia, they will now start looking forward to the World Cup qualifications and the time between now and the spring will likely seem an eternity for those keen for another go at success.
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