Armenia 1—4 Scotland

Good news—we don’t have to watch Scotland until September. Stand-out player, Stuart Armstrong scores a first-half double to give Scotland a first-half lead after a shaky start. Three minutes before half-time Hovhannisyan got two yellows and therefore a red and was sent off for a shocking tackle and sticking the head on John McGinn. Just before the end of the match, David Turnbull—a long term victim of injury—was assaulted by Kamo Hovanisyan. Another red card, but the game was petering out.  It was the kind of break Scotland needed after a disastrous start in which the back three looked like it had been selected from a pub team (no jokes about me playing for pub teams). Scotland lost a goal after four minutes and it could have been more, with balls over the top and any kind of set play causing chaos.

The referee had already rejected a claim for a foul by McGregor on the edge of the Armenian box, when a simple pass forward had Grant Hanley falling on the ball and falling over, hoping for a foul. He didn’t get it. Barseghyan made a simple pass across the six-yard box for Bichakhchyan to knock the ball past Gordon on the sixth minute.

Scotland’s equaliser came eight minutes later. Che Adams hadn’t scored a goal for club or country in sixteen matches. It showed here. He tried a spectacular overhead kick. The ball landed perfectly for Armstrong who stroked it home.

Jack Hendry, who had another horror show after getting bullied in Dublin, somehow got his foot to a ball Barseghyan is just about to pass into the net after rounding Gordon. Another simple over the top ball catches out the Scotland defence. That would have put Armenia ahead after twenty minutes.

Then the Armenians had the ball in the net, but VAR ruled it offside.

Patterson had a swipe at ball at the back post, missing a good chance. The Everton reserve player perhaps wasn’t expecting the ball. After missing so many games he probably wondered what a ball was.  

The game changing moment was the sending off. With three minutes added time in the first-half, Armstrong twisted the knife with a cracker of a goal and made sure Armenia were chasing the game. His first touch took him away from his marker inside the box. His next touch set him up. He fell over but picked out the bottom corner of the net.

As you’d expect, Scotland with an extra man started on the front foot and largely controlled the game. The back three, none of whom got pass marks, where no longer under the same pressure.  

Midfielder, Gilmour, for example, at last finding space and playing in Adams. But it was captain, John McGinn, who got our third. A great take from the Clydebank man, after missing a couple of good chances in the last few matches. Taylor flung in a deep cross that missed everyone, but Patterson on the other wing. He headed back across goal. McGinn took a touch to steady himself and fired home. Ten minutes into the second half and it’s game over for Armenia.   

Three minutes later, Che Adams puts it beyond doubt and it was just a matter of how many for Scotland. The Southampton striker showed strength and guile to take a pass from his Southampton teammate. He could have played Armstrong back in, but held off his marker to fire home. He stung the keeper’s hands with another shot and made a block in the Scotland box, before he was taken off.

Scotland made substitutes as the match became like a training exercise, in which they could and perhaps should have scored more. But Craig Gordon also had to make a few saves.  A double header against Ukraine in our next two matches. Things can change quickly as Ukraine know more than most, but the Eastern Europeans, who play every tie away, look too good for the mixture of average and awful teams in their group. That includes Scotland. I don’t expect Ukraine to lose any of these ties.   

Scotland 1—3 Ukraine.

Scotland last played in the World Cup in France, 1998. The qualification campaign wasn’t a matter of life and death. It was just a game of football, which Ukraine won quite comfortably. They play Wales on Sunday to decide who goes to Qatar in November.  When there’s no football on Scotland are playing. Lyndon Dykes elbows Stepanenko on the back of the head as they go for a punted high ball, and gets a booking, sums up the first-half. Dykes doesn’t come out for the second half, which was no great loss. Ryan Christie coming on was no great gain. Only our goalkeeper got pass marks.  

Scotland played back to front, looking for knockdowns from Dykes or his strike partner, Che Adams. Ukraine went backwards to come forward and dominated possession, looking the far slicker of the two teams with one-touch football. Midway through the half, statistically, each team had four chances. An early Grant Hanley header which sailed over the bar was the pick, the other efforts troubling neither the keeper nor the Ukrainian defence.

 Georgi Bushchan, the Ukrainian keeper, was the weak link in a better drilled and better team. Ironically, he helped create two chances for Scotland, hitting the ball off McGregor and dropping a ball on John McGinnn’s head. Both in the second-half with Ukraine leading 2—0. Neither effort went into the net.  

Craig Gordon, in comparison, was easily Scotland’s man of the match. Eight minutes in and he saved a howitzer from Tsygankov from the edge of the box and tips it over. Nine minutes later he makes an even better save. Yarmolenko, from the penalty spot, escapes his marker and has got to score. Gordon’s reaction save keeps it out and he gets down to smother it. A minute later, Zinchenko gets past McTominay too easily. He plays in Tsygankov, but Gordon comes out to block and divert the ball for a corner. The Scottish defence doesn’t clear the corner but the ball is fizzed over the top of the bar.

Ukraine with almost sixty-percent possession take the lead in 28 minutes and there’s nothing Gordon can do about it. Andriy Yarmolenko gave our back three (or five) the run around. Hanley tried to play him offside, but he got beyond him and dinked the ball over Gordon.

The second-half started with the same pattern. Scotland players couldn’t get near the ball. Yarmolenko dribbles and sets up the second goal in 49 minutes. He cuts back for Karavaev. Yaremchuk towers over debutant Aaron Hickey and guides the ball into the far corner.

 Yarmolenko has a pop at goal in 52 minutes, but Gordon saves. Then he outmuscled Hanley at the corner flag. The Scotland defender falls over looking for a foul, which he doesn’t get.

Yarmolenko then dribbles past a couple of players inside the Scotland box and his cross drifts past the post. Sixty minutes, Cooper makes his mark on Yarmolenko by putting him up in the air. The Ukrainian wants a foul and a booking. He gets a shy.

Billy Gilmour, our central midfielder, passes the ball out wide and out of the park. Scotland’s best chance of getting back into the game proves to be the erratic Ukrainian keeper. He gifts Scotland a goal in 79 minutes making for a nervy ending for the Ukraine team that had been coasting. Substitute, Stuart Armstrong’s cross is partially punched clear by Bushchan, with McTominay challenging the keeper. McGregor’s shot lacks power but somehow the keeper lets it past him but hooks it out, eventually, but too late. The ball had crossed the line.

Scotland had 14 minutes to take the game to extra time. Ukraine creates three good chances where they should have scored, before scoring in the 94th minute. Man of the match, Oleksandr Zinchenko sent substitute Artem Dovbyk clear and he knocked it past Gordon. Game over. Here’s hoping Ukraine win on Sunday. A morale booster. The moral of the story here is you get what you deserve, which is nothing.  If life was that simple.

Scotland 2—2 Austria

Watching Scotland play is a duty rather than a pleasure. I was brought up in an era when fitba was on the telly you watched it. If Celtic was playing Clydebank at Parkhead I’d go to the game and rush home to see if I was on the telly with the other 17 000 crowd haunting Paradise. I didn’t go very often. Obviously, watching every single game when Scotland played in the World Cup in 1974 and 1978. We beat Brazil and there was that Archie Gemmill goal against Holland when we nearly qualified for the next round. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hLuv5AlXWE

It was great being on the road with Ally’s army. I didn’t go anywhere, but the idea was a good one. I’ve only been to one Scotland game at Hampden. I was accompanying some adults with Learning Disabilities. They were looking at me and I was looking at them. And I know what they were thinking…

Obviously, I’m a Celtic man. So I gave David Marshall the once over. Celtic flung £5 million at a Greek keeper that couldn’t catch a pound coin if you handed it to him. So signing Marshall on a free transfer takes me back to Hampden with those Learning Disability adults. Marshall made a couple of good saves here. But he was at fault for the first goal.  Grillitsch hit it from about 30 yards.  Marshall palmed it to his right. The six-foot-seven Austrian powerhouse, Kalajdzic, swooped and scored from the rebound in the 55th minute. Kalajdzic had another goal disallowed two minutes later for a push on Tierney. Scotland got lucky there, because there was little contact.

Tierney was Scotland’s best player. Captain Andy Robertson plays in front of him. I don’t think that works. Both are full backs. I think it’s either/or, not both. And Tierney is simply better. Celtic rather that wasting £20 million on duds should have kept him for another season. He’s sorely missed.

On the other side of the defence, we had the Belgian phoenix Jack Henry. Playing Henry allowed Clarke to push McTominay into central midfield. The Manchester United played had not a bad game. Henry in comparison is Mr Potato head, six foot five and he can’t head a ball. He’s not one I want to keep at Celtic. But he’s good enough for Scotland. Strangely, a Scotland team without any of the Champion’s players. We even had my namesake, O’Donnell, playing at right back (I’m better than him, but slower, a lot slower, and can’t take shys). O’Donnell proved his worth by taking the free-kick from which Hanley equalised on the 71st minute.

The Austrian backline played high, the ball scooped in behind. The Austrian keeper, Schlager, had the option of coming for the ball but hung back. Hanley didn’t. Schlager also made a basic goal-keeping mistake on the cusp of half-time. He passed the ball to Lyndon Dykes, perhaps time-wasting, knowing Dykes doesn’t score many goals. But Dykes found Christie and the Celtic forward hit the keeper with it. It’s not been a great season for him either. I’ll miss Christie when he leaves Celtic.

I’ll mention Stuart Armstrong because he also played for Celtic. Scotland are good at draws and the game looked to be petering out to a 1—1. Then a nothing ball was thrown into the box and Kalajdzic from the penalty spot, with the ball slightly behind him, powered it into the net. Marshall had no chance with this one.

I didn’t rate Scotland’s chances. With ten minutes to go it looked like another defeat. Armstrong played his part by going off a substitute. This allowed Celtic stalwart McGregor to come on and John McGinn to push forward and play up front with Adams (an Englishman winning his first cap for Scotland).

Kalajdzic’s goal was a beauty. But John McGinn’s was even better. You may remember that Celtic let McGinn go to Aston Villa. And he’s a Celtic die-hard, his grandfather player with Celtic. And I played with his McGinn’s uncle, Johnny Gibbons, in the school team. (I may have peaked too early here). Gibbons’ sister and McGinn’s mother played in the netball team. Some thought that’s where I belonged. The goal McGinn scored was probably offside, but even Scotland needs a bit of luck. Another bog-standard cross into the box. It wasn’t very high. McGinn did an overhead kick and it soared into the corner. The kind of winning goal that you dreamed about when playing school fitba—even though it wasn’t the winning goal. Scotland had to hang on for a draw. I wonder what the odds are for Steve Clarke being the next Celtic manager?

Clarke brought on ex-Rangers player McLean to run about for thirty seconds, which was an improvement on bringing on McBurnie. Next up Israel (again). We play them every second game. That’ll give me a chance to sympathise with El Hamad for not being good enough for Celtic. And to call for Bitton to be give a free transfer. He’s nearly as bad as Henry. If I’ve missed mentioning any Celtic player let me know (James Forrest doesn’t count. And we all know where Griffiths is at, but whose box he’s in is anybody’s guess).