FT:- 1-0 (Naismith 50)
Ref:- Kirstinn Jakobsson (Iceland)
Scotland:- McGregor, Gary Caldwell, Whittaker, Berra, Bardsley (Crainey 70), Don Cowie, Darren Fletcher (c), James Morrison (Dorrans 79), Barry Bannan (Snodgrass 83), Steven Naismith, David Goodwillie. Subs Not Used: Gilks, Hutton, Grant Hanley, James Forrest
Bookings:- Dorrans (82, Foul – Prof.)
Lithuania:- Karcemarskas, Radavicius, Kijanskas (Danilevicius 60), Klimavicius, Zaliukas, Semberas (c), Cesnauskis, Mikoliunas (Beniusis 76), Pilibaitis, Sernas, Labukas (Novikovas 45). Subs Not Used: Setkus, Panka, Ivaskevicius, Papsys
Bookings:- Labukas (44, Del. Handball), Semberas (65, Foul – Prof.)
An improved attacking display from the Scots still could not hide the deficiencies at the back, nor the continued cautiousness of Levein’s tactics, which left most of the Hampden faithful unnecessarily chewing their nails with about fifteen minutes to play. The major positive of the night’s action was the midfield contributions of young Aston Villa midfielder Barry Bannan, who for large parts of the game left me in mind of a youthful Gary McAllister, and fully justified Levein’s claims of future stardom. Scotland dominated considerable spells of the match, yet a combination of exceptional goalkeeping from Karcemarskas and poor finishing from Naismith and Goodwillie meant that the Lithuanian’s perhaps had the better chances. It says a lot for Scots confidence that the best performers on the night were the younger players given an outing, whilst the usually dependable Fletcher managed to waste a penalty opportunity just before half-time.
Prior to this match Levein had made much of the way in which he felt his squad had been ‘cheated’ out of three points in Saturday’s match with the Czech Republic. The squad was apparently still angry about this result, but Levein believed that this anger could be channelled positively against the inconsistent Lithuanians. Scotland were missing two experienced players in Scott Brown and Kenny Miller (both of whom had picked up silly yellow cards against the Czech’s), which gave opportunities to Cowie and new Blackburn signing Goodwillie. Bardsley had managed to overcome the injury sustained during Saturday’s match, whilst Hutton had been, in my opinion correctly, dropped onto the bench in favour of Whittaker. The biggest selection shock was the inclusion of young Aston Villa midfielder Bannan in favour of Charlie Adam, yet by full-time this bold decision had been more than justified.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Levein’s team selection was the preference of a solid, but uninspiring, Cowie in favour of the more mercurial talents of Robert Snodgrass. It seemed obvious that in the absence of Brown, Fletcher would be asked to drop into the holding midfield role. Yet the inclusion of the Cardiff man Cowie in preference to the skilful Leeds Utd playmaker seemed emblematic of Levein’s propensity for safety-first football (particularly as Snodgrass had shone during his run-out against Denmark and both players feature at English Championship level). Most of this disappointment was quickly allayed, however, by the emphatic way that Scotland set about attacking the Lithuanians in the opening 35 minutes of the first-half.
Before the relatively experienced Lithuanian side had even had a chance to settle into things Scotland had laid down a few markers of intent. The lively Bannan, who switched flanks with Naismith throughout the match, delivered a couple of probing crosses into the box in the first five minutes, that showed some invention if just a little naivety in the execution. With the Lithuanians unable to hold on to the ball for longer than a few seconds at a time, the Scottish midfield was able to dictate play and the fullbacks of Whittaker and Bardsley were able to push forward at will. Lithuania were playing a very narrow game, but their strong centre back pairing of former Dinamo Moscow defender Klimavicius and Hearts captain Zaliukas, were proving difficult to break down. Prior to the match the Lithuanians had been robbed of their star fullback Marius Stankevicius (of Lazio) through injury, so the utility midfield player Ramunas Radavicius was having to deputise at right-back, giving Bannan, Naismith, Morrison and Bardsley plenty of joy when linking-up down the left flank.
Whittaker, Bannan and Bardsley were getting numerous crosses into the box early on in the half, as Scotland looked for ways round the back of Lithuania’s tight defensive centre back unit. The best of Scotland’s early chances came from a delightful Bannan cross from the by-line, that unfortunately fell to Christophe Berra in the box, the Wolves centre back hitting a strong shot off target. Bannan was causing mayhem with his delivery on corners and freekicks and yet despite some generally good movement from both Goodwillie and Naismith, neither could get themselves convincingly on the end of these gifts.
As only Scotland can really contrive to do they produced their very best opportunities just as the Lithuanian’s were beginning to look dangerous themselves, in the ten minutes before half-time. First Bannan lofted a perfect chipped pass into the penalty area, which, for once, went between Klimavicius and Zaliukas, only for Naismith to not quite have enough pace to power a header past the keeper. Next Fletcher drove toward the Lithuanian by-line, on the left side of the penalty area, then cut back across Radavicius, before forcing a save at the near post from Karcemarskas. From the resultant corner Bannan delivered a wonderful in-swinging ball which Naismith somehow managed to waste, whilst almost completely unmarked. Moments later, Bardsley broke on the counter and drove a long-range shot just wide of the right post.
This was exciting stuff from the Scots, but their failure to capitalise on these well crafted openings was seemingly having a positive effect on the Lithuanian team, who produced a couple of quality opportunities of their own in the closing minutes of the half. Labukas, who’d give away a ridiculous penalty only moments later, managed to catch both Berra and Caldwell asleep in their own penalty box, but failed to time his header and power it around McGregor. A few minutes later, and just before the penalty, Caldwell’s casual pass to Cowie was intercepted by the Lithuanian captain Semberas, who broke clear of the advanced Scotland back line, leaving Berra isolated with three Lithuanians. Absurdly Semberas chose to run at Berra, rather than pass the ball to either of his better positioned teammates, allowing Berra to clean up this mess and get his defensive partner off the hook (much as he’d done in the Czech match). This was probably the most promising move of the first-half, and after the superb penalty save from Karcemarskas, Lithuania tested McGregor one last time, from distance, as Sernas hit a curling strike inches past McGregor’s left post with the goalkeeper looking stranded.
Coming back to the penalty, it was created by yet another dangerous freekick delivery from Bannan, this time out on the left. A moment of madness from Labukas, substituted at half-time, saw the Lithuanian make like Fabien Barthez and punch the ball away from the near post. After the hysterics of the weekend Scotland were not to be denied a spot kick and team captain Fletcher duly stepped forward to take it. Fletcher’s penalty was low and well struck to the left of the goalkeeper, but bizarrely, for such an experienced player, his body had signposted where he was going to strike the ball and as he opened his body up, Karcemarskas preempted him and produced a fantastic save. Incidents such as this have a tendency to depress Scotland teams, so some credit must be given to Craig Levein whose half-time team talk must have buoyed spirits somewhat, as Scotland took barely five minutes of the second-half to grab the lead.
The Lithuanians had brought on Novikovas at half-time, seemingly a punishment to Labukas for his mind-bendingly stupid penalty giveaway, and the new arrival seemed to give the side a little more width, enabling the team to reduce the effect of Whittaker and Bardsley’s forward-running. Almost straight away the hitherto quiet Cesnauskis managed to smash a brutal freekick just wide of McGregor’s right post, with the keeper again looking unable to get across to it. Despite this early pressure, the Lithuanians fell behind on 50 minutes to a beautiful three player interplay, involving two of the young deputies.
David Goodwillie, who had shown plenty of movement in the first period and a keen awareness of space, took the ball across the edge of the Lithuanian penalty area from off the left flank. His neat pass into Bannan out on the right gave the young midfielder time to turn on the ball and send a reverse pass toward the far post where Naismith took the ball first time on the half-volley smashing it into the top left corner of Karcemarskas goal. The fluidity and precision of this goal was quite breathtaking and could only make you wonder as a Scots fan what might have been if only Scotland had shown such inventive and penetrative attacking play more regularly, on Saturday, against the Czech’s.
The goal winded the Lithuanian side and forced them to change their rigid defensive counter-attacking setup. Immediately after the goal it seemed likely that Scotland would add to the scoreline, particularly when Bardsley drifted into the area, but couldn’t get his shot away in time. However, having weathered a ten minute storm, the Lithuanians brought on Danilevicius – an Arsenal and Dunfermline reject, with Serie A experience – at the expense of fullback Kijanskas, effectively deploying a 3-5-2 formation. Although this tactical tweak didn’t have the game changing effect of the Rezek substitution in the Czech match, it did upset the midfield rhythm of the Scotland side, particularly reducing the space and time on the ball for the highly influential Bannan. Frustratingly Levein resorted to an ever deeper defensive style of play as the game wore on toward the final 15 minutes, once again effectively ceding midfield possession to the opposition and allowing the Lithuanians to run on to the Scottish back line.
With Goodwillie having been unable to add a goal to his strong performance, Scotland were increasingly dependent on Naismith as the main counter-attacking threat. Naismith despite the coolness of his earlier finish, lacked a little bit of composure in front of goal, wasting two great chances from a bit of Bannan invention, one of which should have perhaps been a second penalty for hand ball. This was really the last of Scotland’s serious chances to add to their lead and for the final fifteen minutes there was an increasingly frantic feel to proceedings. Lithuania would have equalised if not for a superb deflected block from Fletcher, that saw the ball settle in McGregor’s grasp, when it looked likely to sneak past the unusually shaky Scottish shot stopper. The substitute Danilevicius missed a sitter when Cesnauskis whipped a cross in from the left side. Whilst McGregor was almost caught off his line by a looping Lithuanian header, only just managing to backpedal and keep it from crossing the line. Later still, the dangerous half-time substitute Novikovas managed to get another shot away from distance that moved all over the place before skimming just over McGregor’s bar.
Levein had taken off a tiring Bardsley for an ineffectual Stephen Crainey (making his first appearance in almost nine years for Scotland) and had also brought on the usually reliable Dorrans for Morrison, but all that the West Brom midfielder managed to contribute to the match was the second professional foul of the night. Snodgrass was given a brief cameo after 83 minutes, replacing the sparkling Bannan, yet with the Scots so much in retreat, Snodgrass was reduced to one moment of jinking brilliance. Right at the death the unfortunately named Pilibaitis had Scotland fans almost disbelieving their eyes, but thankfully failed to get a shot away when standing unmarked just a few yards from goal.
It would have been ridiculously cruel on Scotland to have suffered a second dramatic late equaliser, but nonetheless despite Levein’s continued good work at promoting Scottish youth, serious questions should be asked of his side’s inability to close out matches with a second goal. Any team which has Gary Caldwell’s lack of concentration at the heart of its defence cannot depend on defensive rigour so early in a match. Levein has Scotland playing some inventive football, but too often favours sacrificing forward momentum to hold on to what the side already have. With the well-drilled defences of the Smith and McLeish era this was a tactic that could be deployed to some effect against sides that posed a considerable attacking threat (France and Italy, for example). However, despite the hard work of Christophe Berra, this is not a similarly robust Scotland defence and the reliance on defensive solidity in matches against relatively mediocre attacks like that of the Czech’s and the Lithuanian’s is somewhat perturbing. A win is a win and moreover Scotland have managed a cleansheet, stoking the faint flames of hope once again, but I hope that Levein seriously reflects both on the positives (Bannan, Goodwillie and Bardsley) and the negatives (the preference for caution and defensive retreat) when rounding off our qualification attempt in October.
My MOM:- Barry Bannan – Kevin MacDonald had quietly touted the ex-Celtic youth as one of the brightest sparks in an impressive Villa youth side and Houllier and McAllister appeared to take notice. However it now looks as if Alex McLeish is going to be the real beneficiary, as Bannan added to his impressive early season performances for Villa, with a masterclass in passing that at times had the Lithuanian’s believing there must be at least four Bannan’s on the park at once. His intuitive use of space found him drifting all along the Scottish midfield, whilst his dead ball deliveries were as eye-catching as those of the man he replaced in the starting eleven. On the strength of this performance Scotland have a real talent on their hands.
And Another Thing… : – Lithuania are often patronisingly, if rather comically, referred to as the ‘Hearts reserves’, by Scotland fans. On Tuesday these fans were equally adept at ridiculing some of the Lithuanian player names, with substitute Beniusis, being greeted to cheers of ‘Benny-useless’ (a reference to his less than memorable loan spell at Hearts). Whilst Pilibaitis’ woeful late miss was quickly greeted by the derisive, and rather crude, chant of ‘Pillow-biters’. I wonder what Vladimir ‘Roam-and-off’ will have to say about matters through his always farcical Hearts PR releases?