Scotland are already careworn. The campaign will not be judged on the opening match, but it generated a series of concerns that will linger for Craig Levein. The manager dwelled upon the positives he saw in the encounter, but it was unconvincing to say that he was encouraged, because he knows his players can perform better. Scotland accumulated only regret from this game, when points were the crucial commodity.
There were flurries of bright play, but all that was sustained was the discontent among the fans. The final whistle was greeted by a round of booing that could only have been recognised as condemnation. Chances were spurned, but an unimpressive Serbia side ought to have been overcome.
"I saw a huge progression," Levein said of his side. "I thought we deserved to win. Some of our players' performances deserved a victory, but we can play an awful lot better. I'm disappointed, but not down about it."
A manager will always linger on any optimism he can take from a game, but it also sounded like a plea for restraint. Some gripes still fester among supporters about certain decisions made by Levein, in particular his refusal to call up Steven Fletcher, the Sunderland striker. The group, too, is considered daunting, since it contains Belgium, Croatia and Wales, which makes points dropped at home even more damaging.
The frustration was intensified because Serbia were as lacklustre as expected. Sinisa Mihajlovic has only been in charge for four months and had four previous games – none of which were won – but his task demanded a willingness to persevere. Factions are never disposed of without a period of turmoil, although there was immediate progress made when Nemanja Vidic and Dejan Stankovic retired from international duty. While Scotland lined up for kick-off, Mihajlovic clasped his captain, Branislav Ivanovic, in a long embrace, before the players, the substitutes and the coaching staff joined each other in a mass huddle at the side of the pitch.
Carelessness wasn't eradicated by the obvious team spirit. Defenders who look peerless in the Barclays Premier League where suddenly capable of being hapless. Ivanovic gifted an early chance to Steven Naismith, while Aleksandar Kolarov, of Manchester City, was neglectful as Gary Caldwell took a quick free-kick. The pass sent Robert Snodgrass behind the Serbia left-back, but his shot bounced off the chest of Vladimir Stojkovic, the Serbia goalkeeper, and carried across the face of the goal before rolling out of play.
The status of the Serbian defenders ought to have been a reassurance to the visitors. Matija Nastasic was a recent acquisition by Manchester City, but he was rash here, earning a booking early in the first half and being fortunate not to incur others with his impulsive tackling. Inexperience could at least explain his over-eagerness, but it was common throughout the side.
Serbia allowed themselves to be put under occasional pressure because they were unable to establish themselves in the opening half. Paul Dixon, the Huddersfield defender making his debut for Scotland at left-back, had been the target of a Serbian plan revealed in a tactics diagram dropped on the ground while the team trained at Hampden last Friday. "We did not forget it, we left it," Mihajlovic said with a smirk. Dixon was untroubled, though, and spent most of the first half surging upfield in support of the Scotland attack.
Serbia were restricted to a Kolarov free-kick that brought a save from Allan McGregor, the Scotland goalkeeper, but mostly they were just as culpable. Milan Bisevac, the Lyon centre-back, panicked when James Morrison closed him down, and sent the ball straight to Charlie Adam. The midfielder was more alert, and his first-time pass was perfectly weighted to send Kenny Miller through on goal. But he was off-balance when he shot, and the ball looped over the bar.
As the second half progressed, anxiety grew that Scotland would regret not taking advantage of the half-chances they had created. The crowd felt provoked. Miller misjudged the flight of the ball from a Morrison cross and failed to make contact with a header from close range. Then Naismith was sent through on goal by Caldwell, but skewed his effort wide. On both occasions, the fans responded by singing the name of Jordan Rhodes, the prolific young striker who recently joined Blackburn Rovers. His arrival, with only 10 minutes left, could not rejuvenate Scotland, although James Forrest found himself clear inside the penalty area, only to see his effort saved. Serbia, too, might have scored, had Andy Webster not blocked Dusa Tadic in the area. There was relief in that moment, but it was quickly replaced by exasperation.
Scotland (4-1-4-1): McGregor; Hutton, Webster, Berra, Dixon; Caldwell; Snodgrass (Forrest, 69), Morrison (Mackie, 81), Adam, Naismith; Miller (Rhodes, 81).
Serbia (4-2-3-1): Stojkovic; Ivanovic, Bisevac, Nastasic, Kolarov; Mijailovic (Fejsa, h-t), Ignjovski; Lazovic (Tadic, 58), Ninkovic, Tosic; Duricic (Lekic, 83).
Referee J Eriksson (Sweden).
Attendance 47,369.Reuse content