ADVERSITY clearly brings out the very best in this Scotland side.
The build-up to their final 2022/23 Nations League game against Ukraine here in Poland last night had been problematic for Steve Clarke and his players to say the least.
Clarke estimated he was without no fewer than 16 players – automatic starters Scott McKenna, Scott McTominay and Kieran Tierney among them - for this outing in Krakow due to injury and suspension. The sickness bug which had swept through his squad last week complicated his preparations further.
But the national team produced a display full of heart and endeavour in the Cracovia Stadium against opponents who had beaten them in the Qatar 2022 play-off semi-final at Hampden back in June to secure the solitary point which they required to top Group B1.
Scotland will reap rich rewards from their heroic efforts; they clinched a Euro 2024 play-off spot, will be in Pot Two when the draw for the qualifying stages of that tournament is made in Germany next month and won promotion to the A League.
John McGinn and his team mates have performed far, far better. They rode their luck on more than one occasion and had a lot to thank their goalkeeper Craig Gordon for at the end of 90 never-shredding minutes. But they defended as if their lives defended on it and nobody can begrudge them their achievement.
The way they bounced back from their dire displays and disappointing defeats to Ukraine and the Republic of Ireland in the summer has been hugely impressive. They can go forward with confidence and optimism.
Clarke could never be accused of not giving youth a chance. He had a big call to make at centre half after McKenna and McTominay were ruled out. He preferred Ryan Porteous to Declan Gallagher and Stephen Kinglsey.
It was quite a game for the Hibernian man to make his international debut in. The manager could have erred on the side of caution by picking the older and previously capped Gallagher or Kingsley. It was a bold decision to put his faith in an individual whose discipline has often left much to be desired.
However, Porteous more than justified his selection. He coped with the step up in standard admirably against the Euro 2020 quarter-finalists, helped Scotland keep a clean sheet and looks set, despite the stiff competition there is for a start in his position, to win many more caps in the future.
Clarke chose Ryan Jack to partner Callum McGregor in central midfielder ahead of Billy Gilmour and freshened up his threequarter line by bringing in Ryan Fraser and Kenny McLean alongside McGinn for Ryan Christie and Stuart Armstrong. Che Adams took over from Lyndon Dykes up front.
His opposite number Oleksandr Petrakov made five changes to the team that defeated Armenia 5-0 in Yerevan at the weekend. Mykhaylo Mudryk, Taras Stepanenko, Andriy Yarmalenko all returned and took their places in a 3-4-3 system.
Adams, Stuart Armstrong, Dykes, Fraser and Greg Taylor had all been affected by the bug that had swept through the squad. They were all declared fit. But would their energy levels and sharpness be the same as they had been last week? When Adams had a shot palmed wide by Andriy Lunin in the second minute after a McGinn back heel it looked promising.
But Yarmalenko should have put Ukraine ahead six minutes later after Mudryk advanced past Jack Hendry to the goal line and cut the ball back to his captain. Gordon would have had little chance if the winger had got an attempt on target. Fortunately for the visitors, he volleyed over the crossbar and high into the stand.
Buoyed by that let off, Scotland started to assert themselves. Jack, McGregor and McGinn linked well in the middle of the park and they controlled possession for long spells without creating much in the way of chances. When McGinn shelled a free-kick out of the park after Mudryk had fouled Hickey just outside his area it was a waste.
Their rivals very nearly made them pay for their slackness when they launched a counter attack soon after. Yarmalenko sent Artem Dovbyk through on Gordon with a defence-splitting pass between Porteous and Taylor. The goalkeeper, though, held the forward’s weak effort.
Greek referee Tasos Sidiropoulos awarded Scotland a penalty in the 24th minute when he ruled that Stepanenko had inadvertently handled a Fraser cross. The Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder protested and a VAR check showed the delivery had struck his head not his arm.
Jack had an opportunity to break the deadlock from open play when the ball broke to him at a Fraser corner. Finishing is not the Rangers player’s forte and he failed to open his account for his country when he snatched high and wide. Would Scotland pay the price for their profligacy?
Cheered on by the vast majority of the crowd in the 15,000 capacity ground, Ukraine pushed hard for the opener during the remainder of the first-half. Stepanenko nodded a corner wide and Oleksandr Tymchyk almost netted a dipping cross from wide on the right.
They started the second-half in similar fashion. Gordon did brilliantly to push a long-range effort from Mudryk that was destined for his top left corner out for a corner with his left hand just four minutes after play restated and then kept out a powerful Danylo Ihnatenko shot.
Clarke made a triple substitution with 17 minutes of regulation in an attempt to lift his exhausted charges. Kingsley came on for Taylor, Christie replaced Fraser and Jack made way for Armstrong. Dykes, who had scored a late double against Ukraine last week, then took over from Adams in attack. Anthony Ralston replaced Hickey and saw out the draw.
The Tartan Army celebrated as if Scotland had won the World Cup at the final whistle – and they were entitled to enjoy every minute of a magnificent accomplishment.