After months of increasing excitement and optimism about their return to major tournaments, Scotland took their bow at Hampden, but were served a dose of reality as they were beaten 2-0 by Czech Republic in their first Euro 2020 game.
Two goals from Patrik Schick not only sealed three points for the visitors, they dealt a significant blow to Scotland’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages for the first time.
Steve Clarke’s side had won the wholehearted backing of the nation when they beat Serbia on penalties to qualify for the finals, and after the emotion of ending a 23-year trial of failed campaign after failed campaign, supporters had found themselves contemplating a group stage with challenges in the shape of Czech Republic, England and Croatia.
To most, the opening game against the Czechs provided the best opportunity of a win, and that analysis added to the optimism as fans headed to Hampden in numbers for the first time since the pandemic changed football.
The Scotland team bus was greeted with cheers as it made its way down Aitkenhead Road and all along the streets fans were in good humour, with national team shirts of every colour, size and age being worn by those making their way to the stadium. Some tops looked straight off the hanger, others like they had been worn on every step of the journey as Scotland had toiled for over two decades in the hope of making the big time again.
Inside a Hampden Park that had been given a Euros makeover, the classic pre-match playlist was already making itself heard when the first worries surfaced as Steve Clarke’s team was announced. Kieran Tierney, key to a lot of the side’s good work in recent years, was out injured and some of Clarke’s other selections raised eyebrows. Che Adams was on the bench, as was Callum McGregor, Ryan Fraser and others who could have made a case to start.
Any concerns were set to one side, however, when the sides came out of the tunnel.
Though only 9847 were in attendance, and they were socially distanced, and some had been in the stadium for hours ahead of kick-off, the Scotland support turned up the decibels as they greeted the team. There’s your strangest Hampden Roar. Scotland were back and the Tartan Army, even limited in their numbers, were reminding Europe that they had been missed.
Scotland made a strong start, getting on the front foot and there was a swell of anticipation when Ryan Christie released Andy Robertson on the left for the skipper to swing in his first cross of the day, though there were no takers to make the most of it. John McGinn was his typically tenacious self to win a corner after five minutes, though again the hosts couldn’t capitalise.
It was a whirlwind start, as if the team was trying to make up for years of missed opportunity, but it couldn’t last. Czech Republic settled and took their share of possession and some of Scotland’s vim and vigour ebbed away as the visitors made their first forays upfield. David Marshall’s save from Tomas Soucek was an early warning of their danger.
With Tierney out, Scotland were missing the Arsenal defender’s ability to make surging runs from the back and while Robertson got up the left flank, and Stephen O’Donnell was stationed high up on the right, the team took a direct approach from the start, hitting the ball long for Lyndon Dykes. The QPR striker was chosen for his physicality and he was a willing challenger, but wasn’t winning enough of his duels or bringing others into play for the approach to be a resounding success.
Christie was positioned to feed off Dykes but was dropping deep or wide to find space when he could. He took possession on the right side and jinked between two players only to run into O’Donnell when a chance looked to be opening up. The Celtic attacker looked bemused by his teammate’s run into his path.
Mistakes were creeping into the Scots’ game and the crowd seemed nervy, as if realising that everything has to be more clinical at this elevated level.
Scotland’s best opportunity came soon after. A Dykes flick-on found Christie and he played the ball into Robertson’s path with a clear sight of goal. The Scotland captain had time to pick his spot but hit a powerful rising shot that Tomas Vaclik was able to tip over the bar.
The Czechs soon showed how to take a chance. A corner wasn’t properly cleared by the Scotland defence, Vladimir Coufal crossed from the right and Schick rose between Grant Hanley and Liam Cooper to head past Marshall. Ten thousand fans might not be able to generate the same noise as a full Hampden, but their stunned silence was as sobering as any moment after Scotland have suffered calamity at the back.
Change was needed and Clarke made his at half-time, bringing Che Adams on for Christie to reshape the attack. Christie hadn’t played poorly but previous signs of a burgeoning partnership between Dykes and Adams meant there was a chance they could unlock the Czech defence together.
The visitors didn’t sit back and allow that to be tested, forcing two saves from Marshall in quick succession. But Adams’ first touches showed he wasn’t fazed by the occasion and could use his movement to provide another dimension to Scotland’s play.
Pressure was applied as the team pushed for an equaliser, and there was more cohesion to the attack. Another foray forward brought a chance for Jack Hendry to join in from the back and his shot from distance hit the bar. That brought a roar from the crowd and the decibel level crept up a notch, a sign that hope had been restored.
It didn’t last long as the Czechs scored a second that’ll be part of the Euros showreel for years to come.
Hendry found himself in an advanced position again, and decided to try his luck from distance once more. This time his shot was blocked and landed at Schick’s feet on the halfway line. Marshall was about 40 yards from his own goal and raced back, but the Czech forward let fly with a perfect strike that sailed into the net. Again, there was a silent disbelief, a sense that Scotland had conceded the sort of goal that only Scotland can, so that was probably that.
A mix-up between Cooper and Marshall was a sign that the hosts were in danger of becoming too nervy on their big day and the Czechs were always ready to capitalise on an error.
With Scotland needing something to change the direction of travel, Stuart Armstrong took possession and drove forward but saw his shot deflect over to land on the roof of the net. It was one of a number of chances where Scotland had done plenty right but just didn’t have the cutting edge. Dykes then had a close-range shot saved and Hampden grew quieter, with a realisation that the Euros dream might be a bit harder to realise than some expected.
Ryan Fraser and Callum McGregor were introduced, then James Forrest and Kevin Nisbet but, though all acquitted themselves well, it wasn’t enough to turn the tide and the Czechs always looked capable of a third.
The Scotland support had already lost most of their voice as the clock ticked down on inevitable defeat, with the final moments probably spent contemplating how England might be overcome on Friday.
Scotland’s return to elite competition had brought a reminder that it’s great to join the party, but that it’s not just the taking part that counts.