Scotland waited 8393 days for a return to tournament football. When the moment arrived, Steve Clarke’s side – missing the hugely influential Kieran Tierney – were taught the harshest of lessons by a Czech Republic team inspired by Patrik Schick’s double. As the Scots yearned for this finals return, perhaps too few people pointed out the brutality of the environment.
The second from Schick, expertly hit over David Marshall from the halfway line, will appear on highlights packages for decades to come. This was a piece of outlandish skill, arriving when Scotland looked like they may haul themselves back into the game. Schick surely has already secured the goal of the tournament with this piece of left-foot sorcery. Not even the stiff breeze could faze him from precisely 49.7m away from the goal.
Yet Clarke and Scotland will be sore about not playing to their capabilities. With England and Croatia to come, progress from Group D already looks a huge ask. Long before full-time, Scotland looked a beaten lot. Questions, inevitably, will surround Clarke’s team selection.
Tierney’s non-appearance was not simply significant on the basis of his recent, imperious Scotland form. The Arsenal left-back has dictated so much of his national team’s tempo with bursts forward from defence. In Jack Hendry, Grant Hanley and Liam Cooper Scotland had perfectly able centre-backs but none of the trio have Tierney’s running power. Clarke put Tierney’s absence down to “a little niggle” and said he is hopeful the 24-year-old will recover for Friday’s trip to Wembley but this was a blow that could not be ignored. Scotland waited more than two decades for this moment and were denied one of their star turns.
Still, confirmation of Tierney’s injury did not douse a tremendous Hampden atmosphere. Some 10,000 supporters made such an almighty pre-match racket that the official attendance was worthy of question. As men and women of all ages danced to Baccara, Scotland’s value to competitions such as these was back on show.
Given the raucous backdrop, it was no surprise to see Clarke’s team start on the front foot. And yet, the first save of the game belonged to Marshall, 16 minutes in. John McGinn had appealed in vain for a foul when losing possession dangerously close to his own goal. Marshall had to act smartly to beat away Tomas Soucek’s subsequent effort.
Scotland’s immediate response came through Andy Robertson, whose cross from the left flank was prodded just wide by Lyndon Dykes. Clarke’s inclusion of Dykes at the expense of Che Adams raised eyebrows. So, too, Stuart Armstrong’s presence in midfield.
Armstrong was clearly rewarded for an excellent pre-tournament friendly performance against the Netherlands, with Dykes’s physicality the key reason for his starting place.
By midway through the first half, Robertson was telling his teammates to slow things down. And no wonder; everything Scotland did was at breakneck speed. The Czechs, far more seasoned tournament campaigners, were more composed in their work.
Whether by virtue of Robertson’s sentiment or otherwise, Scotland duly fashioned their best opportunity of the half. Ryan Christie found Robertson with time and space to pick a spot beyond Tomas Vaclik. Instead, the Liverpool full-back was wasteful with a rising effort that Vaclik tipped over his crossbar.
Robertson’s profligacy soon looked even more damaging. After the hosts failed to clear a Jakub Jankto corner, Tomas Kalas strode forward to whip in a cross from the right flank. Neither Hanley nor Cooper could beat Schick to the ball, with the Bayer Leverkusen forward’s header leaving Marshall with no chance. Further frustration arrived for the Scots in first half stoppage time as Scott McTominay was denied a penalty following a collision with Jan Boril.
Clarke introduced Adams at the start of the second period, with Christie withdrawn. It took two Marshall stops within 90 seconds of the half getting under way to prevent the visitors from doubling their lead. Scotland appeared to heed the warming, Hendry clipping the Czech crossbar from 18 yards. Vaclik produced a crucial save after Kalas miscued a clearance over his own goalkeeper’s head. The Scots – briefly as it was to transpire – had momentum.
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The marquee moment of this tournament thus far, provided by Schick, punctured Scottish hope. The finish was of immense quality. Still, Scotland will rue Hendry opting to shoot rather than retain possession, allowing the ball to break into Schick’s path. Marshall leapt despairingly into his own net, after the ball. Marshall’s starting position, 40 yards from goal, also looked questionable.
Dykes was the main culprit in respect of subsequently wasted Scottish opportunity, with the home team never displaying the conviction to trigger a recovery. The Czechs wound down time pretty comfortably; they were the ones to exit Hampden with real hope of reaching the knockout phase.