Scotland will end their 22-year wait to play at a major finals after securing a place at Euro 2020 thanks to a penalty shootout win over Serbia in Belgrade.
Scotland last appeared at a tournament at France 98 and will now face England, Croatia, and the Czech Republic next summer after David Marshall was the hero
A whole new generation of Scotland fans will now get to see the national team at a European Championship – 25 years after last playing in UEFA’s premier international competition at Euro 96.
Clarke paired Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson again in the starting XI, despite having struggled to get the best out of either when played together – Tierney at left centre-back, Robertson at wing-back – with Stephen O’Donnell starting on the opposite flank while Declan Gallagher was preferred to Leeds United skipper Liam Cooper to complete the back five alongside Scott McTominay.
A solid looking central midfield of Ryan Jack, John McGinn, and Callum McGregor seemed the obvious choice ahead of kick-off with Lyndon Dykes and Ryan Christie tasked with firing the goals Scotland needed to secure their place at next summer’s finals.
There were a few familiar names in the Serbian squad with Aleksandar Kolarov on the bench and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Dusan Tadic, and Aleksandar Mitrovic all named in the starting XI for the hosts.
Clarke’s side went into the game with confidence despite being clear underdogs; going undefeated in eight matches stretching back more than a calendar year and top of their Nations League group following three consecutive victories over the Czech Republic, winning home and away, and Slovakia as well as last month’s penalty shootout victory in the semi-final playoff against Israel.
As expected it was a cagey start from Scotland, trying diagonals forward for Dykes to test the Serbian defence, but the visitors looked the more comfortable of the two sides as the game settled.
The first real chance fell to Scotland when some lovely work by Christie on the right sent O’Donnell free and the Motherwell man’s cross was delivered into a dangerous area but both Dykes and McGinn couldn’t get onto the end of it and divert it goalward.
Clarke’s side started to take control of the game and won a dangerous free-kick 30 yards from goal but Christie couldn’t get enough power behind it to really test Rajkovic in the Serbian goal.
As the clock ticked past the fifteen minute mark, there were certainly a lot of posities for Scotland to take and the Dark Blues were very much in the ascendancy in the constant Belgrade rain.
When Serbia did try to get forward, the Scottish back three done really well to close down the space and force the Serbian players into turning over possession before they could make anything of it.
The hosts continued to struggle to really make any impact on the game, Scotland doing much of the attacking, but they did come close after 23 minutes; Lukic firing a shot from the edge of the box just wide of David Marshall’s far post after some nice build-up play.
Serbia’s performance will have been concerning for their manager with none of their important players doing anywhere near enough in the opening third of the game to pose any sort of threat to Scotland.
While Clarke’s side hadn’t had many clear-cut chances of their own, it was Scotland who looked the side likely to break the deadlock; Lyndon Dykes again impressing with his hold-up play and willingness to try bring others into play.
The big striker seemed to win everything that came in his direction and was posing all sorts of problems for the Serbian defence.
John McGinn probably should have done a bit better when he found himself one-on-one with Rajkovic, failing to properly test the Serbian keeper just after the half-hour point.
The hosts finally showed signs of turning up in the final ten minutes of the opening 45 but the Scotland defence responded well and stood firm as Serbia looked to force opportunities for Mitrovic.
As both sides made their way off at the break there will have only been one that were happy with their collective performances – but it will have been the hosts who were happiest with the scoreline after 45 minutes.
Clarke opted against making changes at the break and stuck with the eleven that impressed in the opening 45 as Scotland sat less than an hour away from a major finals.
The rain going off will have been a welcome sight as the players re-emerged from the tunnel to start the second half as Scotland immediately went on the hunt for a goal.
Five minutes after the restart it should have been 1-0 Scotland.
A quick counter saw Dykes somehow emerge with the ball before playing it perfectly for Andy Robertson to drill home but the Liverpool star ballooned his effort over the bar.
Robertson’s blushes were spared just a minute later though when Ryan Christie fired home when he looked like he had nowhere to go when he picked up Callum McGregor’s pass.
The Celtic man wound up with a yard of space before finishing beautifully off the far post, beyond the sprawling Rajkovic and into the back of the net.
The all-important goal.
Hold on, please…. pic.twitter.com/Lizan1Xbeg
— Not The Old Firm (@NotThe_OldFirm) November 12, 2020
Christie’s goal sparked some life back into Serbia and the hosts suddenly tried to get forward as they saw their Euro 2020 dream slip away but the Scottish defence stood firm against their attacks with the game entering the final 30 minutes.
The hosts’ frustration started to show as they conceded a number of silly free-kicks and started getting drawn into making silly mistakes or poor decisions.
Scotland’s midfield trio of Jack, McGregor and McGinn done a fantastic job of dictating the tempo and denying the Serbians space to play into.
As the clock ticked towards qualification, Clarke will have been torn over using his substitutes; looking for a balance possibly disrupting an excellent team performance and avoiding fatigue costing his side the game.
McGregor came close to finishing the game off when his strike from distance went just wide – moments before Serbia went as close as they had all game through Milinkovic-Savic’s header.
Scotland were looking like they were going to get a second as the chances started to appear again, Christie firing wide from a tight angle before his free-kick was eventually cleared for a corner.
With every passing minute feeling as though it had taken twice as long as the last, Scotland continued to push for a second goal, keeping Serbia pinned back in their own half for spells but still the advantage remained at one.
Dykes came to Scotland’s rescue in defence with fifteen minutes left, nodding clear a cross before it could be diverted toward goal as David Marshall was the busiest he’d been all night.
Clarke turned to his subs with only eight minutes left on the clock as Oli McBurnie and Kenny McLean replaced Dykes and McGinn to see out the game with Callum Paterson replacing Christie soon after.
Then with seconds left of the 90, the sucker punch most of Scotland were expecting as Serbia equalised to send the game to extra time.
Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic had the freedom of the six-yard box to head home and deliver a gut-punch to Clarke’s side and punish their sloppy defending.
McTominay badly lost his man at the corner and Jovic took the invitation to head beyond Marshall with a well-taken effort.
Scotland looked keen to quickly make amends for their criminal last-minute defending with Jack and O’Donnell having pops at goal in the opening minutes of the additional 30.
The early flurry was Scotland best chances as Serbia took the game by the scruff of the neck and forced a number of corners before Marshall came to the rescue with a fantastic fingertip save from Gudelj’s strike.
Clarke’s side were now seriously looking like they were going to regret not killing the game off in 90 minutes, looking tired as short of ideas as half time in extra time neared.
The substitutions seemed to have taken any spark Scotland had out of their attack with both McBurnie and Patterson failing to offer much after their introduction.
Clarke took one last throw of the dice before the game went to penalties, bringing Leigh Griffiths on for O’Donnell and moving Patterson back in to right wing-back.
It was backs to the wall for Scotland as Serbia threw everything at them but there wasn’t to be a third goal in the game and it went to penalties.
Leigh Griffiths was first up and blasted his spot kick home, despite Rajkovic getting a hand on it, before Tadic drew it level with a cool effort.
Next to step up was McGregor and the Celtic man made it two from two, only to see Jovic also hit the net and keep the pressure up.
Scott McTominay took the third kick for Scotland and showed fantastic technique to bury it low into the corner to make it 3-2, Gudelj keeping up the 100% record from the spot so far.
Sub Oli McBurnie showed his bottle, rolling Scotland’s fourth penalty home and piling the pressure on Katai but the Serbian rifled his effort home.
After scoring the winning penalty against Israel, Kenny McLean made it five from five and leave it down to Mitrovic to keep his country’s dream alive.
David Marshall was the hero though and Scotland’s players wrote their name into the history books.
Scotland: Marshall, O’Donnell, Robertson, McTominay, Gallagher, Tierney, McGinn, Jack, McGregor, Dykes, Christie
Subs: McLaughlin, Gordon, Paterson, McLean, McKenna, Cooper, Armstrong, Burke, McBurnie, Griffiths, Palmer, Considine
Serbia: Rajkovic, Milenkovic, S. Mitrovic, Gudelj, Lazovic, Maksimovic, Milinkovic-Savic, Lukic, Kostic, A. Mitrovic, Tadic
Subs: Dmitrovic, Rockov, Katai, Mladenovic, Spajic, Radonjic, Kolarov, Gacinovic, Vlahovic, Jovic, Ristic, Grujic