Kenny McLean scored the pivotal spot kick in the depleted Scots’ first ever shootout, with only a victory in Serbia on 12 November now separating Steve Clarke’s men from Euro 2020.
It was a turgid affair at an empty national stadium between two below-par teams, but five perfect penalties from the hosts have a nation daring to dream once more.
Scotland, without a clutch of players after call-offs due to Covid-19 protocols and injury, are now on a six-game unbeaten run.
However, the Serbs are lying in wait after they defeated Norway 2-1 in extra time in Oslo.
Hoping for the best, fearing the worst. The mantra of every Scotland fan cowering beneath a quivering saltire behind a coach in homes across the land. Was it now, or would it continue to be never?
As the Tartan Army dared to whisper of the former, the immediate preamble silenced most of the chatter and ushered you towards the latter, with Stuart Armstrong, Kieran Tierney, Ryan Christie, Scott McKenna, Liam Palmer, James Forrest and Oli Burke all ruled out.
What followed in the fledglings moments of this encounter would have offered modest reassurance. While seeing plenty of the ball, Scotland struggled to serve the front two of Oli McBurnie and Lyndon Dykes. Instead, the hosts’ best efforts relied upon set-pieces.
Captain Andy Robertson arced a free-kick wide in a half chance. However, Scott McTominay, again in a back three but this time with Declan Gallagher and Liam Cooper, was guilty of missing a jaw-dropping chance as, from six yards out, he steered a free header an inch by Israel’s right post. The noise of the Manchester United man chastising himself for the miss the only thing cutting through the nervous Hampden Park silence.
The Scotland captain was four years old the last time his nation graced a major tournament, but the pressure seemed to permeate through the team going forward. While the back three looked steady, there was little intensity going forward, minimal width and nothing whatsoever for Ofir Marciano to do in the Israeli goal.
Instead, the side team ranked 93rd in the world were the ones to get the only shot of the 90 minutes on target with 18 minutes of a dour 90 minutes to play, Eran Zahavi’s zinger from distance being dealt with by Marshall.
The game limped over the line into extra time, Scotland’s first since 1961, with a unified sigh of resignment across the country. The introduction of Ryan Fraser brought intent and conviction from the Newcastle forward. It provoked flickers of intent from Scotland, but again Marciano’s gloves remained immaculate. Twenty two years of hurt down, 15 minutes to play.
The agonising torture of Scotland’s first ever penalty shootout seemed inevitable at this stage, but the Tartan Army had not reached that safe haven just yet. Israel offered one huge heart-in-mouth moment Shon. Celtic’s Hatem Abd Elhamed’s whipped cross was missed by Cooper. Lurking behind was Shon Weissman, but the Real Valladollid striker’s outstretched leg missed. The cracks in the fingers contracted tighter.
Then, the nerves were shredded further. A last-gasp corner for the Scots was delivered by Robertson on to the head of Cooper. His touch was true, but the ball crashed off the post and out to signal penalties.
Scotland were now into uncharted waters. Nothing up until this point suggested how plain sailing it would be. John McGinn, Callum McGregor, McTominay, Shankland and McLean all scored, with Zehavi’s opening spot kick miss triggering delirium on the pitch, at homes everywhere and no doubt on streets outside of pubs that closed halfway through extra time.
It’s safe to come out from the back of the couch, but best keep the spot warm for next month.
What did we learn?
Not as much what did we learn, but what did we get reminded. Watching Scotland should come with a health warning.
This is a national team that for so long has threatened to be consumed by the beast of a two-decade burden of of regret, angst and humiliation. While Israel didn’t threat for the most part here, the group of players in dark blue struggled to find their rhythm.
But, it wouldn’t be Scotland unless it was done the hard way. While Clarke will say Slovakia and Czech Republic in the coming days will get due respect, the focus internally will surely be on preparing for Serbia. With an influx of players returning, you just never know.
Scotland’s focus now falls to Sunday’s visit of Slovakia to Hampden in the Nations League. Honestly…