Poland's Robert Lewandowski ends Scotland's Euro 2016 dream with brace
GLASGOW, Scotland -- Three thoughts on Scotland's 2-2 draw with Poland in the European championship qualifying match at Hampden Park.
1. Scots crash out cruelly
When news of Shane Long's goal for the Republic of Ireland against Germany in Dublin seeped through, Hampden Park fell silent. Next came a false alarm of a Germany equalizer in the match that Ireland won 1-0. It was cruel, but crueller followed.
Poland's Robert Lewandowski scrambling home the last kick of the game meant Scotland's dreams of making a first competition finals since the 1998 World Cup were dead. A 2-2 scoreline had killed any hopes of reaching third place in Group D and a playoff.
The spirit Scotland had showed in coming back from the early setback of Lewandowski's first goal in the third minute had thrilled the old stadium. Gordon Strachan's team is left to ponder whether things might have been different without last month's 1-0 defeat to Georgia. Heroic goals from Matt Ritchie and Steven Fletcher came to nothing, and perhaps that escaping news from Ireland vs. Germany was responsible for the loss of control that allowed that fatal, last-minute sickener off a free kick.
Third place was always the limit of Scottish ambitions, and it looked within reach when they roared back into the lead. An improbable comeback was fired by two goals that might have lived long in the memory. Now, though, Scotland will want to forget this night.
When Steven Naismith made a first-half dart down the right flank, a centred pass reached Fletcher, but the striker could not keep control. It was a vignette that suggested the difference between relying on a forward from depth-plunging Sunderland when compared to having a Bayern Munich goal machine in Lewandowski among the ranks. As it turned out, Fletcher would also have his say.
Bournemouth's Ritchie provided inspiration and hope when scoring a truly brilliant strike with the last kick of the first half. The scorer of a volleyed September screamer against Sunderland seized on James Forrest's loose pass, vaguely in the direction of captain Scott Brown. Ritchie's firecracker had Lukasz Fabianski beaten from the moment of contact as the ball seared into the back of the net. Goals before half-time have a habit of completely altering the face of a match. So it proved here. Scotland began the second period with true purpose and the Poles shrank from the contest.
The goal that put Scotland ahead in the 62nd minute might have come from the Lewandowski playbook. With uncharacteristic grace, Fletcher cut in from the right and chipped beyond Fabianski with the first touch of his left foot. It was a classic finish, but then came the cruelty to deny Scotland once again.
2. Lewandowski mortally wounds Scotland
It took under three minutes in the first half for footballing inevitability to occur. Poland's Arkadiusz Milik strolled unmarked through midfield and his stroked pass sent Lewandowski through. Once Alan Hutton was left as last man, the striker's finish beyond David Marshall, actually from a tight angle, was completed as routine. If Strachan's plan had been to push on and deny Poland space, this was its ripping up and chucking in a bin.
Lewandowski has been European football's most in-form striker this season, his feat of five goals in nine minutes for Bayern Munich last month against Wolfsburg one of the most devastating onslaughts in football history. Always likely to be the greatest fear factor for Strachan's men, the locals had decided not to take things lying down.
When Lewandowski had made the pre-match suggestion that he wanted referee Viktor Kassai to stay mindful of strong-arm Scottish tactics that he had not enjoyed during a 2-2 draw in Warsaw in October 2014, he whipped up a media storm. When Scottish tabloid newspaper the Daily Record mocked up a picture of "Lewa" in a bonnet and called him a "big baby," its editors created a hostage to fortune.
Twelve goals in his four previous matches made him a terrifying opponent for Scottish centre-halves Russell Martin and Grant Hanley. While Hanley plays for Championship team Blackburn Rovers, Martin has had a successful season so far in the Premier League with Norwich, but mostly due to having scored three goals for the Canaries.
Lewandowski looked keen to get the job done early, often dropping into midfield or slipping out wide to receive the ball, with Milik moving into the vacant centre-forward slot. It resulted in confusion for Martin and Hanley, two whole-hearted, diligent players, but slowly, deliberately, they seemed to turn what had looked an unfair contest their way.
Then came that late moment, one of pain for Scotland but unbridled joy for Lewandowski. The captain had kept hopes of automatic qualification for Poland very much alive.
3. Polish nerves jangle
Polish fans had filled trains, planes and motorways on their way to Glasgow, while George Square in the city centre had been home to a pop-up beer festival, as all passed off peacefully. In the red and white corner at the top of Hampden's South Stand, red flares blazed but this was by no means the sole enclave of Polish fans. When Lewandowski scored, half the stand went up in celebration.
The half-and-half scarves of Scottish and Polish colours were a poor disguise for the interlopers wearing them. They had come to watch their country's best team since the 1980s, a far better outfit than that which exited Euro 2012 from the group stage as co-hosts. Sevilla's Grzegorz Krychowiak, a player heavily linked with Arsenal over the summer, looked to be lending balance and control from the base of midfield.
But then came severe nerves from Poland's supporters. When Scotland closed out the first half with a sustained spell of attacking, there were moments of desperate defending. Then Poland's inability to make proper contact with their shots was also of assistance. Had former captain Jakub Blaszczykowski's 31st-minute shot not whizzed past Marshall's post, then the Poles might have been booking their tickets to France.
Instead, they had to wait for Lewandowski's second goal to save them. Should they beat Ireland in Warsaw on Sunday, then a third straight European championship finals place will be theirs.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.