It was always going to end like this, two goals from Robert Lewandowski, the striker on the hottest of hot streaks, earned Poland a point that was enough to end Scotland’s hopes of making the European Championships.
What was less predictable was the painful manner of Scotland’s failure – wounded by an improbable Irish victory over the world champions and then dispatched by Lewandowski’s scrambled equaliser with the final kick of the match. It is now 17 years and counting since Scotland last reached a major finals.
Their players ended the match on their knees. They did not deserve for it to end this way after a second-half performance that was their best of a campaign which has flattered to deceive – as so many have in recent Scottish history – yet it is the defeat in Georgia last month that is the decisive result in another failure. Nevertheless this was a gloriously painful way to end it all.
Ahead through two stunning goals from Matt Ritchie and Steven Fletcher, Gordon Strachan’s side were moments from at least staying alive when Poland won a free-kick. The ball was lofted in the box, Scotland’s defence froze – just as they had in the opening minutes when Lewandowski put the Poles ahead – and there he was again to score his 21st goal of a season that has established him as the best striker in Europe.
It was harsh on Scotland for whom Fletcher, a rather more maligned striker, had scored a goal of rare quality to add to Ritchie’s similarly hair-raising finish. There will be more goals against Gibraltar on the Algarve on Sunday but thanks to Lewandowski, a striker in his pomp and revelling in every circumstance, they will count for nothing.
Strachan recalled Darren Fletcher, the most experienced player in his squad, for his first start since the opening game in Germany 13 months ago. Fletcher’s composure and sensible use of the ball was supposed to fulfil one part of Strachan’s plan to deny Lewandowski – starve him of the ball – the other was that the West Brom captain would join Scott Brown in shielding a backline that lacks mobility. That was the plan and it did not survive the first attack.
Neither Brown nor Fletcher was to be seen as Arkadiusz Milik strolled forward and slipped the ball to Lewandowski, who had darted between the home side’s static central defenders. It was a tight call in Lewandowski’s favour by the linesman but as the flag stayed down everyone within Hampden, Glasgow, Warsaw, Munich, Wolfsburg and all points in between knew what was going to happen next, although David Marshall will be disappointed at being beaten at his near post.
A mighty bang echoed around Hampden as the Polish fans – here in huge and noisy numbers – set off fireworks in celebration. Poland were neat in possession and pressed Scotland to distraction in the brief and indecisive moments when the home side had the ball.
Such was Scotland’s struggle, it came as no surprise that Fletcher gave the ball away to set up Poland’s next chance – the surprise came when Lewandowski miskicked having been set up following a neat interchange between the impressively composed Grzegorz Krychowiak and Kamil Grosicki.
Jakub Blaszczykowski shot inches wide as Scotland desperately sought a foothold in the game, let alone offer a threat on Lukasz Fabianski’s goal. Ritchie, back in the starting line-up for the first time since being hauled off at half-time in Ireland, must have feared a similar fate here as the half ticked into its final minute. Then James Forrest, Scotland’s brightest player in the opening period (and that’s a relative statement) dashed down the right and his cross eventually found its way to Ritchie. The Bournemouth winger steadied himself and unleashed a shot that defied all Scotland had produced in the previous 45 minutes. It was the last kick of the half.
Early in the second half, Milik shot low and Marshall saved with one hand low to his left. But Scotland’s start to the half was much brighter and Steven Naismith should have scored after Steven Whittaker crossed from the left only for the Everton man to fail to force the ball over the line.
Now it was the Poles who looked startled. There was a snap to the Scottish tackling. Just after the hour Darren Fletcher and Ritchie won the ball in midfield, Fletcher fed his namesake and the Sunderland striker curled the ball home with the assurance of a 20-a-season man. Hampden erupted and Fletcher came close to scoring again. Brown won the ball, freed Alan Hutton and from his cross Fletcher forced Fabianski into a save.
Poland’s first-half assurance was long gone but they still carried a threat. Krychowiak forced Marshall into another fine save with a thunderbolt from the edge of the area and Piszczek shot over the bar. News of Ireland’s goal against the Germans dampened the mood but that was nothing compared to what the remarkable Lewandowski did to it.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies