Riding the Wave to The World Cup


UEFA World Cup Play-Off Semi-Final: 


Poor Scotland, beaten by a nation under fire.

Everyone knew they were in a bind, home advantage dissolved with the world as the 12th man for Ukraine.

Pre-match questions inevitably homed in on what role Scotland would play - local hero or global villain. Two former stars said the unsayable, that this was not a game they could or should win, even with the World Cup finals at stake.

Liverpool and Scotland legend Kenny Dalglish had suggested honourably withdrawing, while ex-skipper Graeme Souness went one further and said he wanted Ukraine to beat his own country. If not Hobson's Choice, then the Scots were damned if they did, damned if they didn't.

When Nottingham Forest came to play their delayed F.A. Cup semi-final against Liverpool in 1989 following the Hillsborough tragedy, manager Brian Clough admitted they were in a no-win situation. Liverpool duly tore into them and won 3-1.

It was the same score tonight in Glasgow and despite concerns over their pre-match fitness and lack of preparation due to the conflict, Ukraine won at a canter. Their passing was more frequent (549 v 384) and crisper than Scotland's (83% v 79% accuracy), their shape better maintained, and their finishing sharper.

After three dangerous perforations of the Scottish back three in the first 20 minutes, it was looking ominous for the hosts, who switched formations and changed strikers at half-time a goal down. When Roman Yaremchuk's towering header made it 2-0 to Ukraine on the hour it looked all over.

Only briefly did Scotland fire after pulling a goal back in the 79th minute but they did not have the quality to draw level. Manager Steve Clarke has a shallow player pool to pick from. As at Euro 2020, the Hampden Roar could only take them so far.

Only wing-back Andy Robertson and goalkeeper Craig Gordon looked international class this evening. The Scots could not ape Ukraine's constant passing triangles.

They conceded the midfield, particularly in the first half and they had no one with the balletic feet and attacking menace of Oleksandr Zinchenko, an obvious alumnus of Manchester City, a man whose pre-match tears only bolstered his side's aura.

And so now to Sunday in Cardiff and a final showdown for a place in the desert. On this evidence, the yellow and blue tide will drown Wales too and kaibosh Gareth Bale's final World Cup dream.

I have a soft spot for the Dragons having lived there for a few years but part of me does not want to spoil the yellow and blue fairytale either.

It is surely a pity Ukraine's emotional wave has meant the Tartan Army will miss another tournament overseas. I have witnessed their friendly pageant in other lands and it is always a wonderful event to behold. Even in alcohol-free Qatar they would have put on a carnival.

But when there is a real war on, football is surely no matter of life and death. We should not begrudge Ukraine their catharsis, an imaginary fightback against Russia on the pitch. Football needs dreams and this is a huge one we can all relate to.

With such a tide of goodwill behind them, knowing their homeland is suffering appears to be helping the Ukrainian players relax and play good football.

If they can beat Wales this weekend, then one wonders who is going to stop them in Qatar this winter.

Vladimir Putin certainly cannot.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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