Another Scottish campaign ended last night, without a tournament or even a shot at a tournament to show for it, after a 3-1 defeat to Spain in Alicante.
With the Czech Republic, who finished Group I in second place, winning 4-1 in Lithuania, Craig Levein's side needed to beat the world and European champions on Spanish soil. It was an insurmountably difficult task, and neither surprise nor shame that a team run by Xavi and David Silva should prove so obviously superior to the Scots.
"I am disappointed we didn't take any points tonight but the harsh reality is that Spain were better," Levein conceded. "It doesn't get much harder than playing the European and world champions at their ground.
"It has taken me over a year to feel we have a strong squad. We missed out this time but we are determined not to next time. For the World Cup we will start from a better position, with a solid base."
Spain's coach Vicente del Bosque was also impressed by the change in the visitors' side. "Scotland have improved from the first game at Hampden, they are more stable," he said.
For most of the first half Scotland were just two goals from qualification, and they created enough half-chances to maintain interest. But when Silva, the game's best player, scored his second just before half-time, it was clear that Scotland would have to wait until at least the World Cup of 2014.
As ever with Spain, the quality off the pitch is nearly as remarkable as the quality on it. Del Bosque did not have Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Iker Casillas, Fernando Torres or Xabi Alonso in his starting XI.
The Barcelona pair Pedro and David Villa were brought into the side, to work the channels, while Silva moved incessantly between Scotland's defence and midfield, taunting defenders and finding the spaces from which he could perform his incisions. Scotland, in contrast, just stayed with the team that won in Liechtenstein. Craig Mackail-Smith bravely led the line while a five-man midfield tried manfully to disrupt the Spanish football machine.
Their attempts lasted just six successful minutes. Spain have the gift of appearing to find goals at moments of their choosing, and so it felt when they took the lead – having got their eye in, they were ready to score. Xavi swept the ball to Villa on the left, where he laid it off to Jordi Alba, who crossed to Silva to finish neatly.
Scotland performed with the discipline and application which were their only plausible path to success and they could not have played much better. With direct passing and strong running, they made some half-chances. Steven Naismith headed wide, as did Christophe Berra, and only a Gerard Pique tackle denied Naismith a good chance.
It was nearly enough to get to half-time in touch, but not quite. One minute before the break, Silva cut in from the right, exchanged passes with Pedro and stroked the ball into the far corner.
In the second half Spain continued to play their game, and nine minutes in they scored their third of the evening. Silva, Pedro and Santi Cazorla, in precise combination, carried the ball into the box, where Silva passed to Villa, who scored his 50th international goal.
Never broken or disconsolate, the Scots continued to fight and scored a deserved consolation goal. Mackail-Smith darted in front of Victor Valdes, winning a penalty that was converted by substitute David Goodwillie.
Spain (4-3-3): Valdes; Ramos, Pique, Puyol (Arbeloa, h-t), Alba; Busquets, Xavi (Llorente, 64), Cazorla; Villa, Silva (Thiago, 55), Pedro. Substitutes not used Casillas (gk), Martinez, Torres, Mata.
Scotland (4-5-1): McGregor; Hutton, Bardsley, Berra, Caldwell; Morrison, Fletcher (Cowie, 85), Adam (Goodwillie, 63), Bannan (Forrest, 63), Naismith; Mackail-Smith. Substitutes not used Marshall, Whittaker, Robson, McManus
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