On the eve of combat, James McFadden had proclaimed: "We're not under any pressure". But by the time the striker had emerged into the white heat of expectation here yesterday evening, with Hampden having been warmed up by big-screen replays of past and recent glories, he may have had cause to review that opinion.
As a reminder, a photo of the Everton striker, his head superimposed with gladiatorial armour, had dominated the entire front page of Scotland's biggest-selling red-top. Alongside ran these words: "What we do in life echoes through eternity. Let this be the day of the FADIATOR.
So, no pressure at all then.
As the teams emerged, the foundations of the old place can rarely have been more examined for their durability. It was almost 10 years since Scotland qualified for the finals of a major tournament, and the whole of Glasgow was aflame with a belief thatthis would not be another case of glorious heroics ending in ultimate failure.
Alex McLeish's men had required the bare minimum of a goal, but who would begin up front? McFadden? Kenny Miller? Or both? And what of Kris Boyd, with his seven goals from 12 appearances? The Scotland coach predictably opted for McFadden as a lone raider, at least as a starting strategy. It proved an astute deployment, McFadden making a nuisance of himself amid Italy's rearguard throughout.
While no one doubted the hosts' appetite, what would be the visitors' reaction, if any, to the death of an Italian supporter, shot by a policeman on Sunday, and the ensuing riots? But then Italian football constantly appears immune to such events. After one of the biggest scandals in the history of the game, they emerged as world champions.
True, Italy no longer offered the threat of Francesco Totti or Alessandro Nesta, both retired from international football. Yet 10 of Italy's starting team were World Cup winners.
What the Italy coach, RobertoDonadoni, cannot have imagined was, instead of a fearsome onslaught, immediate encouragement for his men. It was brutally quick, and would have terminally damaged many a team's aspirations. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, had barely taken his seat when a quick throw, one deft pass, and Luca Toni had brought a nervous silence to affairs. "Well, best time to have conceded," someone muttered after a pause.
Gradually, Scotland's blood began to flow again with a sense of self-belief as McLeish, gesturing from the sideline like a demented tic-tac man, exhorted his men to intensify their assault on Gianluigi Buffon's goal. With Paul Hartley and Lee McCulloch instilling nervousness within the Italy rearguard they went close, too. A decent penalty shout was dismissed by the Spanish referee,Manuel Gonzales, and then the defender Alan Hutton headed wide before David Weir was denied by a goal-line clearance just before the interval.
Scotland's football has been denounced as unaesthetic. Frankly, yesterday it could have been as ugly as Stanley Baxter in drag. The reality was that Scotland's unlikely triumphs in these qualifying games have been hewn from a rock of courage and undiminished spirit. Nevertheless, even their most vehement detractors would attest to the acumen of Barry Ferguson and Scott Brown, and there were some splendid passing movements to admire. But crucially, in that first half, no equaliser.
Italy resisted as uncompromisingly as their teams have done down the years, initially dealing better with the idiosyncrasies of an increasingly saturated pitch. And they threatened a second, the looming figure of Toni taunt-ing the Scotland defence with his sheer presence, although the Bayern Munich striker allowed himself to be drawn into squabbles with David Weir and Co and was cautioned before half-time.
Toni's early goal made a daunting task near-impossible for Scotland. Or so it had appeared. Just after the hour, though, Ferguson's equaliser yielded hope and an outpouring of euphoria. A draw would mean Scotland's ambitions were still alive for another four days, and McFadden even looked likely to win it for them. But he struck the side-netting, then, after a marvellous exchange of passes with the substitute Kenny Miller, shot wide.
Perhaps it was unkind to suggest it, but you sensed the occasion and the pressure had got to him. That miss was to prove the defining moment. Christian Panucci scored in added time from a disputed free-kick, and McLeish's exaltation changed to one of devastation.
At the final whistle, McLeish gestured his men, angered by that free-kick decision, away from the referee. Among them was McFadden, who protested: "After all the hard work we've been robbed. We think we deserve to be at a major championship".
Few, either side of the border, would not concur with that.Reuse content