Scotland’s dreams of a first World Cup appearance in 20 years are over following a heart-breaking 2-2 draw in their final qualifier with Slovenia. Half-time substitute Roman Bezjak scored twice to deny the visitors the three points they required to book a play-off berth. While the result was not enough to revive Slovenia’s remote hopes of qualifying, it will sting Scotland the most given they held control over their own destiny.
Gordon Strachan’s side were second in Group F coming into the match and looked on course to advance when Leigh Griffiths broke Slovenia’s record of having not conceded at home this campaign. But joy soon turned to disaster for the visiting Tartan Army as the unheralded Bezjak scored twice in the space of 20 minutes to gift Slovakia second spot behind England.
Scotland’s chances flickered back to life in the closing moments when substitute Robert Snodgrass bundled in an equaliser before Bostjan Cesar’s late sending off, but it was not enough to salvage an all-important victory in what could prove Strachan’s final match in charge. Slovenia proved difficult to break down in their 1-0 defeat to England on Thursday and Strachan responded by pairing Griffiths and Chris Martin in a two-man attack.
The hosts looked the more dangerous in the opening exchanges, though, with Tim Matavz stinging the palms of Craig Gordon. Scotland began to find joy through their left-flank combination of Andrew Robertson and Barry Bannan and that pair created an opening for Martin, who could only draw a comfortable near-post save from Jan Oblak. Instead, it was left to star man Griffiths to give the visitors the lead just after the half-hour when he anticipated James McArthur’s clever header and picked out the bottom-right corner with a clinical low finish. The vital goal was the Celtic striker’s fourth in his last five international appearances and put his nation within 45 minutes of the play-offs.
Needing three points to revive their own unlikely hopes of securing second, Slovenia sparked into life just seven minutes after the restart. Josip Ilicic dropped a dangerous free-kick in behind the defence to be met by half-time substitute Bezjak, whose header nestled into the bottom-right corner. The goal appeared to rock the away side and they needed a reaction save from Gordon to deny Bezjak a quickfire brace.
However, the Darmstadt striker did not have to wait long for a second as he drove what looked to be the final dagger through Scottish hearts by tapping in after a scramble from a corner. Scotland captain Darren Fletcher blasted a great opportunity for an equaliser over the bar before Snodgrass did drag them level two minutes from time, although they were unable to capitalise on Cesar’s red on his 100th appearance as a nail-biting finish ended in disappointment for both sides.