Scotland went into their World Cup date of destiny inadvertently cast as the bad guys. They came out of it with their hopes in tatters.
Virtually every non-Scot was willing on Ukraine and they got their wish as Steve Clarke’s side fell to a chastening Hampden defeat, ending their bid to reach Qatar 2022. Scotland’s 24-year wait to return to the finals rolls on.
While Ukraine thrived on the raw emotion of the occasion, their country’s first major sporting appearance since Russia’s invasion began in February, the home side froze.
It was arguably Scotland’s biggest game for a generation, yet the paucity of their performance was stark. They were a shadow of the side who had dispatched high-flying Denmark at a raucous Hampden six months previously to guarantee home advantage for the play-off semi-final.
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Having gone eight games unbeaten before Ukraine arrived, Scotland’s run ended with a whimper.
As a result of the conflict in Ukraine, the rearranged tie took place 69 days after the original date and the extended build-up brought an increased spotlight on both sides.
Did the pressure and intensity of the occasion – knowing the world was against them – prove Scotland’s downfall?
“We spoke about that on the way to the game, the whole outside emotion surrounding it, we were trying to block that out,” said midfielder Ryan Christie, who came off the bench at half-time with Scotland 1-0 down.
“I think we’ve done exactly that since we met up for the camp. Put all that aside, they just played better than us on the night. That’s the most frustrating thing.”
Goalkeeper Craig Gordon, 39, acted as a one-man barricade at times but knows his last chance of playing at a World Cup has now slipped through his fingers. He feels Scotland simply ran out of steam at the most inopportune moment.
“No, I don’t think that [the emotion] is a factor,” said Gordon. “We had a job to do to go out and win the game for our country and it wasn’t something that was playing on our mind.
“Just the amount of games everyone’s been playing, it’s the end of a long, hard season and we didn’t manage to cope with that and they did.
“We just didn’t have one of our best performances when we needed it. No excuses, we were beaten by the better team.”
‘The toughest 10 days of my career’
For Scotland captain Andy Robertson, the 3-1 loss completed a triple whammy of heartache that will take a while to ease.
Having been pipped to the Premier League title by Manchester City, then losing the Champions League final to Real Madrid, the agony kept on coming for the Liverpool left-back.
By the time Scotland roused themselves in the second half, they had left themselves too much to do at 2-0 down. Callum McGregor pulled one back, but as is often the case with Scotland, it’s the hope that does for you, with defeat confirmed by Artem Dovbyk deep into stoppage time.
“You’ll need to ask Ukraine if the emotion made a difference to them,” Robertson said. “I can’t answer for them.
“I know we were highly motivated, highly determined to get to the World Cup, something this group has never achieved before.
“We’re building something here I believe, sometimes you need to take bumps in the road and this is certainly a huge one.
“Personally it’s the toughest 10 days of my career. Emotionally, mentally, physically, everything. I’ll deal with that myself, I’ll go away and go think about that, but I’m just gutted for they lads in there.
“Obviously I was desperate for them to get to a World Cup and play on the biggest stage and unfortunately we’ve fallen short but we need to be ready the next time to come around.”