With England and Croatia sharing the spoils last night at Wembley, both Scotland and the Czech Rep were aware that a win here in Hampden Park would hand them early control of the group. As it transpired, neither managed to take all three points, but it was only five minutes of madness after half-time that prevented the hosts from topping off an otherwise impressive display.
It is a typical Scottish problem that the two finest players of a generation play in the same left-back position, meaning that a certain amount of shoehorning is required to have them on the pitch together. Kieran Tierney slotted into his preferred left-back role, with Andy Robertson in a more attacking wide midfield role. It was his tenacity that gave the Scots an early lead. He pressed the Czech right-back Pavel Kaderabek as though he had a personal vendetta against him, and the unfortunate Hoffenheim defender’s panicked pass back to Tomás Vaclik was far too weak. Oliver Burke was on it in a flash, cleverly poking the ball on one side of the stranded keeper and skipping around the other side for an easy finish into an empty net.
The Scottish high press continued to cause problems for the Czechs for the remainder of the half. As well as being an effective tactic against a team with no clear creative force, it was like catnip to the Hampden crowd. Nothing earns a roar like a player working his tartan socks off, and the Scottish midfield’s workrate was indeed prodigious. With so little time on the ball, the Czechs resorted to high balls forward that Souttar and Mulgrew repelled with ease.
Spirits were high as half-time came, but with the slight discomforting thought that such a high-intensity game plan could see legs tiring very quickly in the second half. The Czech coach, Jaroslav Silhavy, also made a clever change: off went Matej Vydra, who was ineffective on the right flank; on came the muscular presence of Club Brugge’s Michal Krmencik as Patrick Schick moved wider. With Krmencik to hold up the ball, the Czechs now had an extra dimension to their play and equalised as the Scottish defence struggled to adapt. A Krmencik flick-on found Schick in space on the edge of the area, and the Roma attacker’s clever dummy took Tierney out of the game. McGregor had no chance with the emphatic finish into the top corner.
Moments later, Czech Republic took the lead as Schick and Krmencik again combined. This time Schick was the provider, whipping in a wicked cross that Krmencik attacked with gusto. McGregor again had no chance, and such was the force on the header that he wouldn’t have even managed to stop it had he been able to get anywhere near it.
Scotland were rattled but responded well. The Hampden rafters quivered as the crowd, muted by the shocking turnaround, found their voice again. The Scottish response was nearly immediate in an absurd goalmouth melee from a corner, as first Souttar, then Mulgrew and finally Burke had shots desperately blocked before Celustka finally managed to hack the ball clear.
There are moments in football matches, when the crowd roars as one and the momentum on the pitch is irresistibly in one direction, when a goal is not just inevitable but feels like a physical necessity to prevent implosion. For a good fifteen minutes the entire stadium teetered on this orgasmic knife-edge. A Ryan Fraser shot hit the outside of the post after a mazy dribble. Souttar had a free header from a corner but somehow directed it straight at Vaclik. A Robertson cross was sidefooted wide by Burke.
And then Brabec was penalised for grabbing a handful of Forrest’s shirt some 25 yards out. Up stepped Andy Robertson, who pinged it up and over the wall and into the top corner. Pandemonium.
Oliver Burke grabbed the ball from the net and ran with it back to the centre circle, but with the merciful relief of the goal, something had gone missing. Fresh legs came on in the shape of Ryan Christie and Stuart Armstrong, but the high pressing and high tempo had caught up with the Scots and neither side managed to fashion any meaningful changes to snatch all three points.
Steve Clarke must now turn his focus to the journey south to face an England side that showed several weaknesses against Croatia. His tactics today were spot-on, but this is a weak Czech side that showed little in the way of creativity outside of that chaotic spell just after half-time. With all teams level on one point, Group D is wide open.