N.B This piece is written purely from the view of a fan in the stadium – I haven’t had the opportunity to see the highlights after the match (not sure I can bring myself to watch anyway) so this is coming just as I saw it at Hampden this afternoon. Hopefully it won’t appear too biased an analysis.
Tonight I’m writing from a perspective of sorrow after Scotland once again failed to fulfil all the pre-match optimism, hype and expectation invested in the team. While the referee had a large part to play in our downfall, more of the blame should rest with Craig Levein and the management staff due to an unnecessarily negative tactical set-up and some confusing substitutions during the second half.
While the Czechs were a feared international force during the last decade they have declined to the point where the respect that Scotland showed them today was completely unnecessary. Five years ago, when they regularly selected the likes of Pavel Nedved, Marek Jankulovski and Jan Koller and reached number two in the FIFA rankings, the caution displayed in front of a raucous home crowd might have been appropriate. But sitting off the play and letting Jaroslav Plasil and Tomas Rosicky dominate possession deservedly resulted in a catastrophic conclusion.
Scotland were poor in the first half with a late goal from Kenny Miller unjust reward for their lack of attacking endeavour. Charlie Adam struggled to get into the game in the centre and the lack of forward impetus was perhaps summed up by the standout performers: centre-half Berra and left-back Bardsley. Miller’s goal was the result of possibly the first incisive pass that Scotland completed; Fletcher sent Miller through in the left channel and the latest Tartan Army Talisman finished somewhat fortunately under the Czech goalkeeper.
With the long-awaited lead finally taken, the mood at half-time touched new heights, even by the stratospheric standards of the Scotland support. Spain in Alicante? No problem. Euro 2012? We’ll probably win the whole thing. This enhanced spirit of optimism was lifted further by an encouraging start to the second half – for fifteen minutes Scotland pressed the opposition high up the pitch, forced them to clear aimlessly and then kept possession composedly upon securing it. For this short spell, and only this short spell, Scotland made the Czech Republic look the poor side that they undoubtedly were.
But gradually Scotland slackened off again, returning to their earlier defensive depth and letting the Czechs control possession and providing them with acres of space in which to prod and probe at the Scotland rearguard, Plasil finally breaking the door down with thirteen minutes left. At this point, Adam (admittedly quiet on the afternoon) was substituted to a chorus of groans – Levein sacrificing the one player capable of producing something from nothing for the honest toiler Don Cowie.
However, the shock of being pegged back eventually spurred Scotland into action with Miller and Fletcher again combining, this time to restore the lead. Hampden was a wall of noise; total bedlam ensuing as Fletcher passed the ball into the Czech net from Miller’s weighted ball. With less than ten minutes to battle through, the Hampden crowd were certain that the Euro 2012 dream was resurrected.
The mood changed instantly from delirium to despondency following the contentious award of a penalty to the Czech Republic with two minutes to go. It seemed from one angle to be a stonewaller but the East Stand were adamant that the Czech forward had taken a dive and were universal in their condemnation for the striker and the hapless Dutch referee. Michal Kadlec converted casually and then the referee compounded his error by denying Berra and Scotland a more obvious spot kick in stoppage time. Surging into the box and bearing down on goal, why would Berra have gone down had he not been fouled? Mr. Blom’s decision defied belief.
Scotland were definitely unfortunate to be on the receiving end of two poor refereeing decisions but equally were culpable for their virtual elimaination from Euro 2012 thanks to a negative, defensive and sometimes cowardly performance. There were too many players today with big reputations who didn’t display the ability in possession so crucial at international level.
Similarly, the inexplicable Scottish reluctance to press the Czech Republic as they swaggered forward from defence resulted in mediocre midfield players like Rosicky and Plasil being allowed to recycle the ball at will on the Hampden turf. While the referee will assume the position of tabloid scapegoat, the harsh spotlight of criticism should also fall upon Craig Levein for the overly conservative style of play that he ordered.