The dream died in the cruellest fashion at Hampden Park last night. Scotland's bid to reach Euro 2008 failed as Christian Panucci's stoppage-time header stole victory for Italy just when the world champions looked dead on their feet. So, after a remarkable campaign in which Scotland scared the life out of Italy and France, it is the World Cup finalists who will be heading to the finals next summer instead of Alex McLeish's team. They led Group B, and defeated France home and away, but have nothing to show for it.
Italy were clinging on to the slender point that was in their grasp after Barry Ferguson's 65th-minute equaliser had cancelled out Luca Toni's second-minute goal. James McFadden almost put the Scots into the finals, but his effort slid wide and then the Spanish referee, Manuel Gonzalez, awarded an incomprehensible foul to Italy when Toni had actually bundled into Alan Hutton. Any free-kick was Scotland's but Andrea Pirlo swung over a delivery that was headed beyond Craig Gordon by Panucci.
Rain may have hammered down all day in Glasgow but that could not dilute the passion inside Hampden Park. The place was in uproar before kick-off with The Proclaimers' "500 Miles" sweeping around this famous stadium as the giant screens showed a montage of old games, with Joe Jordan and Kenny Dalglish scoring memorable goals in dark blue.
This occasion carried a simplicity. Scotland against the world champions, for a place in Euro 2008. Gladiatorial combat dressed up in modern garb. It took Italy just 73 seconds to puncture the raucous mood.
Toni had hinted at his vigour by winning the very first challenge of the contest against David Weir and the opening thrust from the visitors kept the pressure on. However, Hutton switched off at Gianluca Zambrotta's throw-in. Antonio Di Natale spun and clipped a cutback for the incoming Toni, who stuck out his right foot and stabbed the ball into the roof of the net.
McLeish had stated that he had no fears about this team if they took one on the chin. Well, they were presented with the ultimate test on this occasion. The Hampden crowd was initially hushed, then began to lift the Scottish players.
The psychological blow was hard enough but Scotland also had to adjust to the treacherous underfoot conditions imposed by the torrential rain. That was evident when Stephen McManus was betrayed by the surface in the 13th minute as he tried to control a long ball. Toni seized on it and his shot was touched into the side netting by Gordon.
However, Scotland gradually found their belief. Ferguson's corner was met by Hutton and the ball broke to Lee McCulloch, whose venomous shot was blocked by the arm of Zambrotta. The Scotland side appealed en masse for a penalty but the referee ignored them. Then McFadden curled in a fine corner that was met by Hutton, whose glancing header bounced just wide of the post.
Italy's 4-3-3 system posed problems for Scotland but, in midfield terms, allowed McLeish's team a distinct advantage. That was underlined on the half-hour as Darren Fletcher swivelled and released the run of Ferguson, who deftly exchanged passes with McCulloch and fired in a shot which the goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, saved.
A minute later, Gordon eclipsed that with a wonderful save from a venomous shot from Mauro Camoranesi, but Di Natale pounced to bury the rebound. Fortunately for the hosts, the referee's assistant raised his flag for a marginal offside decision.
Scotland summoned up one more threat before the interval, as Weir rose to meet Ferguson's corner and his looping header seemed destined to provide an equaliser as it cleared Buffon, only for Pirlo to head it away from the unguarded net.
Scotland's quest in the second half was unceasing. They ran tirelessly through the mud even though the surface was prompting mistakes from reliable people like Paul Hartley. His error, as the ball got trapped at his feet, saw him concede a foul to Gennaro Gattuso and that allowed Pirlo a chance to whip in a menacing free-kick but Gordon's handling was supreme.
At the other end twice McCulloch rose above Cannavaro to knock the ball down into promising territory but there were no takers. Then another McFadden corner found Hutton's head but again it narrowly cleared the bar.
However, it is Hutton's speed across the ground that is a far more potent weapon. The right-back had been causing problems for Zambrotta and that was vividly illustrated in the 65th minute. Hutton ran 60 yards in the rain, leaving everyone in his wake until Zambrotta brought him down on the edge of the box.
A free-kick was awarded and McFadden stepped forward. The Scotland striker tried to curl the effort over the wall but it pierced it instead, the shot dropping at the feet of McCulloch, whose right-foot effort was only blocked by Buffon. That allowed Ferguson to pounce and drill in the rebound from two yards, to unlock an enormous explosion of noise around Glasgow.
Scotland now believed they could grasp their prize. Kenny Miller arrived on the stage with 17 minutes left, replacing Scott Brown. The tiring Italians were now on the ropes, as McFadden fired a shot narrowly wide as a taut finale was cranked up.Reuse content