Scotland came from behind twice on Thursday night to rescue a point in their opening World Cup qualifier against Austria at Hampden Park.
After a muted first half in which the hosts largely disappointed, the game sparked into life after the interval and provided a second-half with goalmouth action and controversy.
In a post-match interview with BBC Sport, Scotland manager Steve Clarke praised his side’s “resilience” after the game and described the draw as “a fair result,” although having declared his intention for Scotland to start the game on the front foot, he could not have been pleased with his side’s weak start.
Clarke’s starting line-up raised eyebrows, with Lyndon Dykes preferred to Che Adams up front despite the latter’s superior form in a higher league in recent months.
Dykes’ inability to make the ball stick for Scotland in the final third was one of many issues during a first-half largely controlled by the visitors. Saša Kalajdžić’s shot wide of David Marshall’s near post after a positive run by Christoph Baumgartner was an early warning, but Scotland failed to exert control in midfield.
The hosts were reduced to attempting to exploit Austria’s mistakes, as they so nearly did just before the break when goalkeeper Alexander Schlager passed the ball straight to Dykes, who teed up Ryan Christie, only for Schlager to redeem himself by saving Christie’s effort with an outstretched left leg.
Within ten minutes of the restart, Austria had opened the scoring. Florian Grillitsch was given far too much space outside the box to line up a shot, which David Marshall could only palm straight to Kalajdžić, who converted the rebound for his first goal in international football.
This is a series of errors Scotland can ill afford at the Euros this summer, or indeed in their attempts to reach a first World Cup since 1998.
More encouraging was Scotland’s response to the setback. Almost straight away they drove up the field and were denied a seemingly clear penalty.
Had VAR been in operation, the referee would surely have reversed his decision upon seeing Stefan Ilsanker’s arms wrapped around Christie’s midriff as he attempted to reach Stephen O’Donnell’s cross.
A second questionable refereeing decision followed soon after, with a Kalajdžić header being ruled out for a foul on Kieran Tierney, a decision even Clarke later admitted was questionable.
Scotland’s positive response to going behind was rewarded with 20 minutes to go when O’Donnell’s free-kick was headed home by Grant Hanley on his return to the national team after an absence of three years.
Neither team demonstrated any notion of being satisfied with a point. Marshall did well to reach a fizzing cross just before the increasingly dangerous Kalajdžić, Andy Robertson’s equally dangerous delivery a minute later narrowly evaded the outstretched toes of Dykes.
Kalajdžić then cemented his arrival on the international stage with a moment of pure class. His beautifully guided header from the edge of the box restored Austria’s lead and gave him the second goal he had earlier been denied. Suitors for the Stuttgart striker are already rumoured to be circling.
Once again, Scotland’s response was to redouble their efforts. John McGinn’s disappointment at being unable to convert a flick-on from Christie rapidly evaporated when his equaliser snatched the accolade of the game’s best goal.
After a Robertson corner was cleared, McGinn was once again teed up by Christie and this time executed an astonishing overhead/bicycle kick. The linesman’s decision to keep his flag lowered despite Austrian protests was vindicated by subsequent replays.
The result was a point which Scotland would surely have taken after their weak first-half display, in a game which Austria arguably shaded.
The draw means the likely race between the two for second place in the qualifying group behind Denmark will be close fought – Scotland must now avoid their previously habitual slip-ups against the likes of Israel in order to stand a chance of reaching Qatar.
Steve Clarke can take particular encouragement from the performance of Kieran Tierney, who eased worries about his position within the same team as national captain Robertson with an assured performance on the left of a back three.
Tierney demonstrated both sound defensive ability and willingness to carry the ball out from the back, while Robertson overlapped dangerously from his wing-back position.
The spirit showed by the team’s two fightbacks was another positive, but Clarke is surely aware of his side’s lingering deficiencies. Harry Kane may not quite possess Kalajdžić’s combination of aerial ability and physicality, but the Austrian’s dominant performance will encourage opponents that Scotland’s largely inexperienced collection of defenders can be got at.
The number nine shirt remains up for grabs, with Dykes unable to rediscover the form which helped Scotland reach the Euros, meaning Che Adams is likely to be handed the chance to establish a starting role in his newly adopted national team.
Image: Stuart McKenzie