Fletcher points to brighter future

Slovenia 0 Scotland 3
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The Independent Football

"As the manager of a national team, you know you're not going to get that many opportunities to go to major finals," Smith said. "The first one has slipped away from us, but at least we got the decent ranking that everyone was saying was so important for the next one. Hopefully, we can achieve a good level in the next campaign."

Darren Fletcher and James McFadden struck fine goals at the start of either half, after which Scotland defended resolutely against persistent but unconvincing pressure. As chants of "easy, easy" filled the cold night air, Paul Hartley crowned a splendid move with another eye-catching finish to deliver the Scots' biggest away win in a qualifier since beating Estonia 3-0 in 1993.

If things had panned out the way Smith had wanted, this would have been a night of goal flashes and shredded nerves, his side striving for the victory that might have prevented Norway seizing the play-off spot. Instead, last weekend's events lent an air of futility to the fixture.

Fortunately, neither Scotland nor the Tartan Army shared that view. The players were clearly determined to put Saturday's aberration against Belarus behind them. After they had flirted unsuccessfully with a long game at Hampden Park, Fletcher's fourth-minute goal stemmed from the kind of ground-level passing they produced when winning in Norway. The Manchester United midfielder, mature beyond his 21 years, took a pass from Graham Alexander before thrashing a right-footed drive past Samir Handanovic from 22 yards.

Craig Gordon's chief concern in the exchanges that followed was to sprint back to his goal after a heavy first touch took the ball out to the wing. He pursued it, blundering through a tackle before returning. Yet from less possession, the Scots threatened almost every time they broke out.

They certainly looked more comfortable absorbing pressure and countering than carrying the game to their opponents. Slovenia came close to scoring only twice before the break. Aleksander Knavs headed wide from a cross from Milenko Acimovic, the former Tottenham player, who also forced Gordon to tip over a fierce free-kick. McFadden fluffed a gilt-edged opportunity to double the lead before half-time, scuffing his shot wide with only Handanovic to beat.

However, the Everton player soon made amends. Less than two minutes into the second half, Scotland may have been expected to be adjusting to the introduction of Gary Caldwell and Garry O'Connor. Nigel Quashie, revelling in his return after being left out against Belarus, was having none of that. He fed Fletcher, who sent a high-class pass to McFadden. His 15-yard volley, a left-footed effort that arced over the keeper, was of similar quality. When Acimovic quivered their crossbar from 22 yards, the feeling grew that this was Scotland's night.

Slovenia, obliged to use all their substitutes before the hour, began to look forlorn, reflecting a campaign in which they beat Italy but could not consistently live up to the standards they set in reaching Euro 2000 and the ensuing World Cup.

Scotland endured another escape in the 65th minute. Bostjan Cesar, on the goalline, touched a corner by Andrej Komac only to divert the ball wide. Before Hartley applied the coup de grâce, Gordon was booked for time-wasting. As the play-off draw takes place without them, the Scottish FA might usefully ponder the time they wasted before parting with Vogts.

Slovenia (3-4-1-2): Handanovic (Udinese); M Mavric (Molde), Knavs (Salzburg), Cesar (Marseilles); Koren (Lillestroem), Zlogar (Enosis Neon Paralimni), Ceh (Austria Vienna), Komac (Maritimo); Acimovic (Lille); Rodic (Kayserispor), Cimirotic (Incheon United). Substitutes used: Pecnik (Sigma Olomuc) for M Mavric, 25; Siljak (Mouscron) for Rodic, 54; Ilic (Domzale) for Pecnik, 58.

Scotland (3-5-1-1): Gordon (Hearts); Webster (Hearts), Weir (Everton), Pressley (Hearts); Dailly (West Ham), Hartley (Hearts), Fletcher (Manchester United), Quashie (Southampton), G Alexander (Preston); McFadden (Everton); K Miller (Wolves). Substitutes used: G Caldwell (Hibernian) for Pressley, h-t; O'Connor (Hibernian) for Miller, h-t; S Caldwell (Sunderland) for Quashie, 72.

Referee: R Temmink (Netherlands).

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