No goals and not many chances, but an entertaining enough match all the same, as Scotland's campaign got off to a distinctly average start
It's been a while. As Billy Connolly joked during his An Audience With... in the mid 1980s: "Scotland always qualify." You could make those sort of gags back then. Just look at the run of Scottish World Cup attendance, the team of 1990 helping Scotland break the world record for consecutive successes in qualification campaigns: 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990,
Since then, though? Not so great. Craig Brown's final campaign as Scotland manager, for the 2002 tournament, was a failure, but only just: had his side not thrown away a two-goal lead at home to Belgium, they'd have featured in an eminently winnable play-off against the erratic Czech Republic. The attempt to get to Germany in 2006 was an abject failure, Berti Vogts chased away from Hampden as the campaign ended almost before it had begun, with draws against Slovenia and Moldova, and a defeat at home to Norway. And while that might have been bad, the abortive attempt to make South Africa in 2010 under George Burley was even worse, coming off the back of the brave bid under Walter Smith and Alex McLeish to reach Euro 2008 in a group of death alongside the 2006 World Cup winners and runners-up Italy and France. So bad, I'll not be going into any detail here. Sue me. No, scrub that, sue George.
But here we are again with a clean slate, and there is hope. Not a lot of hope, as fellow Group A groupies Belgium, Croatia, Serbia and Wales are all ahead of Scotland in the Fifa rankings, only Macedonia trailing behind. Craig Levein's selections are notoriously, eh, idiosyncratic. And the ongoing row with txt :-) striker Steven Fletcher is nothing short of childishly preposterous. But we are where we are where we are, and everyone starts with the same number of points - so there is hope. There's got to be hope.
And there's no reason why the Scots can't open their 2014 campaign by claiming all three points. Serbia are ranked 42nd in the world, only five places and 14 points, whatever the hell that means, ahead of the Scots. "I think this is one of the hardest away games for us, so we will be fully concentrated and we will have to give our maximum to get a positive result," says Serb captain Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea, perhaps with one eye on the very promising Jordan Rhodes.
But the Serbs, who also boast Manchester City defender Aleksandar Kolarov in their ranks, aren't too worried. "It is good for us that Steven Fletcher is not playing," smiles Ivanovic, who was also reported as suggesting the Scots "become very disoriented when the ball is consistently played on the ground". In fairness, he claims to have been misquoted, but let's be honest: Scotland do sometimes become very disoriented when the ball is consistently played on the ground. Whether or not the ball is consistently played on the ground, come to think of it. It's up to Levein's side to prove such dogged cynicism, as Kevin McCarra calls it, unfair and wrong. It might not take much to silence the cynics: a good start to the campaign this afternoon, and a nation bruised by recent failures will be encouraged to dream again.
A new dawn for Scotland, please, and let it begin at: 3pm BST.
Scotland, who hand Huddersfield left-back Paul Dixon his debut, and give Kenny Miller the nod ahead of Jordan Rhodes: McGregor, Hutton, Webster, Berra, Dixon, Caldwell, Naismith, Snodgrass, Adam, Morrison, Miller.
Subs: Gilks, Hanley, Rhodes, Mackie, Maloney, Forrest, Cowie, Dorrans, McCormack, Phillips, Foster, Marshall.
Serbia: Stojkovic, Ivanovic, Bisevac, Nastasic, Kolarov, Mijailovic, Tosic, Ninkovic, Ignjovski, Djuricic, Lazovic.
Subs: Kahriman, Tomovic, Maksimovic, Petrovic, Lekic, Tadic, Lukovic, Matic, Fejsa, Subotic, Markovic, Brkic.
Referee: Jonas Eriksson (Sweden)
Some pre-match optimism: "We can win every group game," says Craig Levein. "We are capable. Yes. Definitely." Right, let's see how this pans out, then...
To blaring music, as is the modern way, the teams make their way out onto the pitch! This obsession with I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) really has to stop. And then Scotland's other National Anthem That Technically Isn't, the traditional 1967 hit Flower of Scotland. But in between it's the Serbian song, and it's the sort of tinny wheel that wouldn't have sounded out of place on The White Heather Club back in the day (writes disingenuous reporter who would have had to be at the very least 50 years old to remember that particular programme).
And we're off! Scotland are in their traditional blue shirts, now with the classic round 60s/70s/80s SFA badge thankfully restored to its rightful place on the end of everyone's tit. Serbia are dressed in their white tops, and it's the visitors who get the ball rolling. One last huge Hampden roar - and it is on!
1 min: Serbia spend almost the entire opening minute with the ball. Tosic makes some ground down the left, but Berra is on hand to head his centre purposefully clear.
2 min: Miller attempts to make some ground of his own down the right, but the move peters out quickly enough. A slow start.
4 min: Morrison bombs down the left wing and is upended by Mijailovic. He slides a low free kick in towards Miller who, from the left-hand corner of the Serbian box, attempts a clever first-time layoff back to a team-mate. It's not so clever.
5 min: The debutant Nixon dinks a ball down the left. Morrison heads it on for Naismith, who strides with extreme prejudice towards the Serbian area. It's a great run, and he's only stopped from getting a shot away by the toe of Bisevac. It's a corner down the left, and one that's plucked from the air by Stojkovic. A decent start by Scotland.
7 min: Berra grapples with Tosic just to the left of the Scottish D; free kick. McGregor's wall isn't too clever, allowing Kolarov the opportunity to blast the ball to its left and towards the left-hand post. The keeper makes up for his tactical error with a magnificent save right at the base of his post, then snaffling the loose ball as it's dinked inside from the left-hand byline by Djuricic.
9 min: A free kick to Scotland down the other end, out on the right. Adam swings it in towards the near post, where it's headed behind for a corner by Nastasic. Scotland's second corner of the match ends up just like the first, picked from the skies by Stojkovic. It's pretty open, this game, given both teams will be nervous as they make the first thrusts and parries of their campaign.
11 min: Dixon slides a ball in from the left, through the corridor of uncertainty, forcing Kolarov to chest out on the right for a corner. There's an almighty scramble in the area, the ball breaking outside the box for Morrison. But as he shapes up to shoot, he takes a heavy touch, allowing Serbia to nick the ball and stream upfield. Lazovic is in acres down the left, with men over in the middle - Scotland had packed the box upfield - but he over-elaborates, allowing Berra to slide in before he can shoot. The ball clanks off the Serb and out for a goal kick. That looked for all the world like the opening goal for the visitors. Scotland can breathe again.
14 min: Wow, this is end to end stuff. Scotland win their third corner, down the left. Adam and Snodgrass faff about, but a Serbian boot gifts them a free kick near the corner flag. Adam whips the ball in; Kolarov heads behind for a corner down the right. Morrison whips the ball into the area, but Ivanovic deals with it fairly easily.
15 min: While jogging alongside Mijailovic in the middle of the park, Naismith plants his elbow in his opponent's coupon! That was ludicrous, and totally unnecessary. He really should see red for seeing red, but the referee hasn't spotted the off-the-ball incident, and the Everton player can consider himself a very lucky boy. Even if that was retaliation for some as-yet-unrealised slight, it was an act of supreme stupidity.
17 min: Ignjovski makes good down the inside-left channel, and swings a delicious ball through the corridor of uncertainty. But there's nobody bombing forward with him, and the pass flies out of play to the right of the Scottish goal. Serbia have looked very dangerous going forward on a couple of occasions, mainly on the break. Scotland should probably give a thought to over-committing, even though going for the win is imperative.
20 min: Dixon hasn't been frightened to get forward. He combines well with Naismith and Miller down the left, eventually getting to the byline and winning a corner. The set piece is wasted, but Craig Levein will be happy with his contribution so far.
22 min: A quickly taken free kick down the inside-right releases Snodgrass into the area. He makes the corner of the six-yard box and looks for Miller in the centre. The ball hits Stojkovic on the chest, and spins out for a corner on the left. The corner's taken, earning another one on the right. Snodgrass, on the corner of the area, curls a ball towards the far post. Naismith doesn't connect with his header, but would have been offside anyway.
24 min: Hearts-in-mouths time for Scotland again, as Tosic slides a ball down the inside-right channel for Lazovic, who is clear in the area, Lazovic opens his body to shoot, and sidefoots wide right. A poor miss, but he was a mile offside anyway, Berra and Webster stepping up cleverly at the very last minute. Both teams could be leading this game, both teams could be losing it.
27 min: A lull.
29 min: A fair old atmosphere in Hampden. This may not be like watching Spain versus Argentina, but it's entertaining fare nonetheless. Saturday at 3pm, you see.
30 min: What a tackle by Dixon! Mijailovic slides a ball down the inside right for Djuricic. The striker's clear, and the angle's not prohibitive, and there's men in the middle to slide a pass across to also, but Dixon gets a toe in to break up play. If he'd mistimed that, it'd have been a penalty, but if he hadn't made the challenge, it'd have been a goal. Wonderful stuff from the debutant.
31 min: The ball flies down the other end down the right, where Nastasic kicks Miller into the air like an old rag. He's booked for his trouble, the first flash of yellow of the match. Adam attempts to trick the keeper by aiming directly for the top-right corner when surely the sensible play was to swing the ball towards the far post. Stojkovic is having none of it, and catches the weak attempt without too much ceremony.
34 min: This is mainly Serbia now, with Scotland reduced to occasional sorties upfield on the break. Tosic goes on a threatening meander down the right, making it as far as the area before miscontrolling and letting the ball run through to McGregor. But Scotland need to get on top of this, or there'll be trouble at mill.
37 min: Adam goes on a determined run down the right, but Mijailovic sticks with him all the way. Then Kolarov turns up just in time for Adam to clumsily Garethbale him in the ankle. No intent, just a signal lack of speed. Adam puts his hands up, and the referee does nothing more than award a free kick to the Serbs.
39 min: Snodgrass is enjoying a wee bit of space down the Scottish right, but more often than not he's wasting it. Here he tries to cut into the box by dropping a shoulder, but it's an obvious gambit and Nastasic steals the ball. Then he's got time to stick a cross into the area, but fannies it.
40 min: Hutton goes in on Ninkovic with two feet up, studs showing. That's a really poor challenge, even if he connects with the ball before the player. In another parallel universe, Scotland are down to nine men. But he doesn't even get booked. There didn't seem much in the way of murderous intent, but then that's not the point, recklessness being enough to condemn a man. On the touchline, Serbian coach Siniša Mihajlović, hardly one to pull out of a tackle in his playing days, has the brazen chutzpah to critique Hutton's work. Though of course he is technically right to do so.
42 min: Miller nearly shanks a cross into the net from a tight angle on the right. Stojkovic was very nearly surprised by a cross that spun into a vicious shot, and no wonder, that had Shane Warnesque amounts of turn on it. But the ball just flies over the
44 min: Lazovic has a slap from distance, coming in from the right. There's no real pace on the shot, and McGregor smothers.
45 min: Morrison drives into the Serbian half with not too many white shirts in attendance. He's got options left and right, but picks the wrong one, i.e. gives it to Adam, who prances around down the left to no useful effect before sailing an aimless cross in the vague direction of Miller but straight at Stojkovic.
HALF TIME: Scotland 0-0 Serbia. And that's that for the half, the referee blowing for the break just after Nastasic clatters Miller from behind. It's a superb political decision, Nastasic having already been booked. Scotland can hardly complain, though, with Naismith and Hutton both fortunate to still be on the pitch. Sending the Serbs down to ten men would have been quite the decision. And yet it wasn't an ill-tempered half, quite the opposite. Diverting enough, if not quite a festival of fun.
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And we're off again! A change for Serbia: Mijailovic is replaced by Fejsa. Scotland get the ball rolling. "If Miller is capable of Shane Warnesque shots-cum-rosses," begins William Macpherson, "was Mihajlovic, in his playing days, the equivalent to a Chris Gayle? He did enjoy hammering it."
46 min: Tosic dances down the right and earns himself some space and time near the area. He opts to go for goal, and the resulting shot is as ridiculous as that decision.
47 min: Snodgrass is booked for brushing his elbow into Kolarov's coupon. It wasn't a Naismithian belt, just a clumsy slap. But he's earned himself Scotland's first booking of the game, and of the campaign.
50 min: A quiet start to the half. Serbia won a corner down the left, but they didn't craft anything out of it, so I don't see why I should.
51 min: Hutton makes a magnificent diving save at the feet of Lazovic. Of course, full backs aren't allowed to do that in this code of football, and it's a free kick to Serbia, right by the left-hand corner flag. The ball's swung into the area, whereupon a scramble develops. Scotland clear through Miller - and win a corner up the other end down the right, a set piece Berra meets with his head. But he guides a weak effort wide right of goal, Naismith stretching desperately at the post but unable to meet the ball.
53 min: Morrison skedaddles down the right, then Gerrards a cross into the stand behind. This is a strange game, with any result possible. It's open and arresting enough, without any clear-cut chances having been carved out. Hampden is getting a wee bit more tense as the clock ticks on.
55 min: Ignjovski cuts in from the left and unleashes a low fizzer towards the bottom right. It's wide of goal, but you could hear the collective sucking of teeth afterwards, as Hampden contemplated the onset of pain.
58 min: Adam and Morrison execute the most ridiculous one-two in the history of All Football. Adam's miscued corner from the left finds Morrison on the right-hand corner of the area. Morrison's ball into the centre is also a wild shank, and ends up back at Adam's feet. Scotland ping it around and spring Miller clear down the inside left, but his shot from a tight angle is parried by Stojkovic, and the ball comes back off the striker's shins for a goal kick.
59 min: Tadic replaces Lazovic.
60 min: Miller's sprung clear into the area down the inside left again. He's hauled back for offside, which is, to use 1990s Hollywood comedy parlance, totally bogus, Nastasic playing everyone onside. But this is where we are. Scotland will hardly be able to moan about the referee in this match, unless something typically unpleasant befalls them in the closing half hour.
62 min: So close to a goal at either end. First Miller jumps under a Naismith shovel from the right. Eh? He was clear, eight yards out. Very poor. Then Kolarov comes in from the left and sends a screamer inches wide right of goal. McGregor might have had that covered, but he was fingertipping it out of the bottom corner if that was the case. It could be 1-1. It's actually 0-0. Hampden is getting ever-so-slightly agitated.
65 min: Brilliance from Caldwell, who robs Bisevac as the Serb fannies around in the centre circle. After a quick one-two with Miller, he slides a perfectly weighted pass down the inside left to release Naismith into the area. He should get a shot on target at least - he should really score, tell the truth - but his dinked effort screws wide right of the target. Hats off to Caldwell there, who crafted something out of nothing. A marauding burst of playmaking, McBeckenbaueresque.
68 min: A better few minutes for Scotland. The ball's flung into the mixer from the left. Berra and Caldwell attempt to stick the nut on it, but nothing quite falls for them.
69 min: Snodgrass is replaced by Forrest. Can the Celtic youngster rock the boat?
Sorry. Any old excuse for a pop classic.
72 min: Corner to Serbia down the right. Tosic and Tadic go short, and spend the best part of 30 seconds prancing around to no effect whatsoever. Finally the latter balloons a hopeless cross miles out of play on the left.
73 min: Hutton, the galoot, stands on the ball and allows Serbia to flood down the left. It looks like curtains for Scotland, but Berra's positioning is perfect, first holding up the masses cascading towards the home goal, then nicking off with the ball.
75 min: Ivanovic looks to bust clear down the right, but he's denied from entering the box by another fine sliding tackle by Dixon. Corner. From which Tosic and Tadic perform their little dance again. What a waste. Dear Jesus.
76 min: Hutton is absolutely clattered by Kolarov. To his credit, he doesn't complain upon eventually getting back to his feet. From a deep position on the right, Adam sends a magnificent free kick towards the penalty spot. Not for the first time, Miller mistimes his header, sending a decent chance well wide right. He looks kaput. Where's Jordan Rhodes? He's on the bench, is where he is.
79 min: Rhodes is now warming up - and as he sprints up and down the touchline, he's called back to the bench to get ready. Hampden roars its approval. A change to come soon. Meanwhile Ninklovic is booked for a cynical tug on Adam, as the Stoke player looks to make good down the right.
81 min: Tadic cuts in from the left and hoicks a useless effort miles over the bar. Then, to a massive roar, Rhodes replaces Miller. Mackie also replaces Morrison, but that one only gets a polite smattering of applause.
83 min: Kolarov zips down the left and slides a dangerous ball into the area. Webster spins through 180 degrees to clear confidently.
84 min: Lekic comes on for Djuricic.
85 min: Mackie grafts hard down the right and threatens to break into space before being upended by Nastasic. Saucy Nastasic, on his yellow card! He gets away with what in fairness was a pretty innocuous challenge, a foul, nothing more. Adam's free kick, sent into the area, is nothing short of abysmal.
87 min: Ignjovski is down getting a wee bit of treatment on his ankle, having turned it while trying to keep a loose pass in play. He hobbles off, then is ordered back onto the park by his coach, who is having none of his greeting.
89 min: Dixon launches it long. Rhodes flicks a header on. There's nobody there for Scotland. Stojkovic - who let's be fair, has had bugger all to do all afternoon - collects.
90 min: Tosic rolls an exquisite pass down the inside-right channel to release Tadic. That's a ball worthy of winning any match. And it so nearly does, except Tadic's shot is parried round the right-hand post marvellously by McGregor. That's a corner, from which ...
90 min +1: ... another corner's won, and wasted. Scotland clear. This is the first added minute of three.
90 min +2: Forrest is sent into space down the right by Adam, and into the area! He's one on one with Stojkovic, who parries in the McGregor style, and the ball's cleared. That wasn't a particularly easy chance, at a tight angle with Serbian presence on his shoulder, but a chance nonetheless. There's a corner, but nothing worth mentioning comes from it.
FULL TIME: Scotland 0-0 Serbia. And that's that. Forrest holds his head in his hands, but that wasn't too easy an opportunity, and anyway Serbia were deserving of the draw. A few boos ring around Hampden, with the Scottish campaign having got off to a slow start. But it could be worse. In the past, it has been worse. But you can see who's the happier, the Serbs congregating in the middle of the field for a huddle, before whooping and clapping their supporters. The Scots are third in the table, two points behind Belgium and Croatia, and ahead of Serbia using my special Alphabet System. Macedonia on Tuesday, then. A must-win fixture, one game into the campaign. Good old Scotland!