Scotland fell to an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to Kazakhstan in their opening EURO 2020 qualifying match in the Kazakh capital, Nursultan. However, was it a case of underestimating the underdog, or simply being upstaged by a nation rising to the occasion?
Going into the match in the recently renamed Kazakh capital, the Scotland side will have been feeling confident.
Their opening two matches of their qualifying group had put them up against Kazakhstan and San Marino. On paper, that looked as close to a guaranteed six points as one could have hoped for from the group.
There were some minor hurdles to navigate from the Kazakh side, namely the distance to travel to the country and the artificial pitch they play on, but for a squad of professional international footballers that shouldn’t have been too much of a concern.
Manager Alex McLeish clearly felt confident, as he opted for a side that while bursting with attacking talent, was largely void of big name stars or the traditional on-pitch leaders within the Scotland camp.
Still, even with the omissions, as Serbian referee Srdjan Jovanovic blew the starting whistle in the Astana Arena those celebrating the navy blue shirts would have been confident. After all, Kazakhstan had only recorded victory in three of their previous 40 competitive fixtures – against Andorra, Latvia and the Faroe Islands.
They weren’t going to be a challenge.
Yet, nobody seemed to pass that message on to the hosts, who buzzed around from the very first seconds in their yellow jerseys. Encouraged by the raucous atmosphere in the stadium, they were up for this match.
And after just six minutes of play, they reminded Scotland that they were here to play as Yuriy Pertsukh latched onto a lofted ball with a lovely touch before lashing home a strike. The home supporters were sent into raptures in the stands as Scotland looked desperately for an offside call that was never going to come.
It was just about the worst start McLeish could have witnessed, but little did anyone know at that point that the wheels had only just started to come off. It was going to become a whole lot worse yet.
Before the clock could even reach double figures, that became abundantly clear when Yan Vorogovskiy inflicted further pain, taking advantage of a sleeping Graeme Shinnie.
Scotland were utterly stunned, much like those watching on, as they found themselves 2-0 down inside 10 minutes to a side they’d expected to breeze past. This had not been on the script.
The one positive for Scotland, it was still early in the game.
However, Kazakh goalkeeper Dmytro Nepohodov obviously decided he was quite keen to add to Scotland’s misery and add a clean sheet to what was set to be a famous victory. Every time Scotland looked like they might have been able to regroup and snatch back a crucial goal, the FC Ordabasy man was there to deny them – in spectacular fashion at times too.
Trouble continued in the second half, as more woeful defending – this time from Scott McKenna – allowed Baktiyar Zainutdinov to out-jump his man and kill off the tie with a smartly finished header.
Already, just five minutes into the second half, the tie was dead in the water and the hosts were all but assured of their famous victory.
Having often been on the losing side of results, they know how to defend and sit back to deny and frustrate opponents. The rest of this match was no different.
Scotland soon discovered themselves playing the match they had predicted from kick off, facing up against a rigid Kazakh defence happy to sit back and soak up pressure comfortably. The only difference, the Scots still lacked real quality while Kazakhstan were riding high on cloud nine, with vocal support from the crowds inside the Astana Arena.
Oh, and the score was still 3-0 in favour of the hosts.
No surprises, therefore, when the final whistle gifted a result of the exact same scoreline. It was a memorable night for those Kazakh players, and one of absolute horror and embarrassment for a woeful Scotland.
Yes, there had always been a banana peel of sorts to slip up on against Kazakhstan from the start, but nobody had truly expected McLeish’s men to actually trip on it. And especially not as spectacularly as they did.
It was a truly embarrassing result – one that will stick with this side for the rest of their EURO 2020 campaign – and that may well have already proven fatal in their pursuit for qualification, given how many competitive teams are in Scotland’s group.
Kazakhstan deserve plaudits for their efforts and display. They were genuinely brilliant on the night.
However, Scotland sat back and underestimated the minnow nation so much that it invited the upset, and it was frankly what was deserved. There were schoolboy mistakes and a real lack of leadership on display in navy and it proved costly.
The one solace for McLeish and Scotland, their next match is against San Marino. Time away from the spotlight and against an opposition of an even easier calibre than the Kazakhs is crucial. Confidence can be rebuilt by racking up the goals in a game that you would expect should be a breeze.
But, they absolutely must not falter in it. An embarrassing 3-0 loss to Kazakhstan is bad. Really bad. But anything over than a resounding victory over San Marino in three days time would be curtains for Scotland and EURO 2020.