With 20 nations long since on board and kicking their heels in wait, the continent’s collective focus shifted to the final hurdle, in what has been an arduous qualifying process and when it comes to arduous, that is exactly how you can describe Scotland’s attempts at reaching a major tournament.
22 years is the length of time that the Tartan Army have had to suffer in terms of finals exile and although they have come desperately close at times, there has been nothing short of desperation for a number of managers.
Not since competing in the 1998 FIFA World Cup, has the “Flower Of Scotland” been belted out at a major summer football festival and although there has been more than two decades of heartbreak, there is finally reason to be cheerful.
Cheer that comes after beating Serbia via a penalty shootout and even though Steve Clarke’s men were the dominant force throughout the first 90 minutes of the game, they had to qualify the incredibly hard way.
With Ryan Christie’s goal putting the visiting Scottish side 1-0 up early in the second half and several other chances being created to further their advantage, it looked like being one of the more comfortable performances this nation has served up in a long while.
However, it would not be a Scottish story without a cruel plot twist and with Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic heading home a Serbian equaliser in the dying seconds of the game, the balance was quickly tipping in the hosts’ favour.
To the point where Serbia were certainly in the ascendency during extra-time and were it not for the acrobatics of David Marshall in the Scotland goal, there is every chance that the final tiebreaker of penalties would have subsequently been unnecessary.
Thanks to Marshall’s save, penalties is exactly what followed and with the first nine efforts being coolly slotted home, it was down to Fulham’s Alexsander Mitrovic to edge the contest into the theatre of sudden death.
Mitrovic has already missed one penalty for Fulham this season and his luck deserted him once again, as the outstretched Marshall was more than equal to his effort and with that save, it meant Scotland have finally been welcomed back in from the footballing cold.
Unfortunately, the same feeling of jubilation could not be afforded to Northern Ireland and with Ian Barraclough’s men losing to Slovakia in extra-time, it means that there will be not be a clean sweep of qualifying home nations in next summer’s tournament.
It was a gallant effort by the Northern Irish at Windsor Park and although their defeat will undoubtedly create the headlines, another point of interest was the 1,000-capacity attendance that was permitted to view the game in person.
With each of the spectators having to enter through what can only be described as a disinfection station, it has certainly offered an interesting insight into what steps can be taken regarding fandom in future.
While Hungarian fans will certainly be celebrating, as they witnessed their national stars score two late goals against Iceland and in doing so, they overturned Gylfi Siggurdsson’s early effort, to subsequently book their own place in the 2021 finals.
Which means with 23 names now in the hat, there is only room for one more and that berth has been secured by North Macedonia, as with their slender 1-0 win over Georgia – a goal that came from 37-year old Goran Pandev, this newly named nation will be making a major finals debut.
With the qualification process now finally complete, here is the draw in full:
Group A: Turkey, Italy, Wales, Switzerland
Group B: Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Russia
Group C: Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria, North Macedonia
Group D: England, Croatia, Scotland, Czech Republic
Group E: Spain, Sweden, Poland, Slovakia
Group F: Hungary, Portugal, France, Germany
Written by Dan Tracey