Sunday, November 18, 2007

scotland s summer

Bravehearts lose out to Italian job
Nov 18 2007 Wales On Sunday

SCOTLAND'S dream of qualification for Euro 2008 came to a heart-breaking end at Hampden as they lost against world champions Italy.

Hopes of participating in next summer's finals appeared to be all but over when Luca Toni fired the visitors into the lead in the second minute, before Barry Ferguson threw Scotland a lifeline.

James McFadden came so close to a late winner, firing wide as he stretched to meet Kenny Miller's cross.

But the cruellest twist was to come as Christian Panucci inflicted a fatal blow in the 90th minute to guarantee Italy and France would be heading to Austria and Switzerland, while Scotland's long wait to dine at football's top table continues.

The biggest debate surrounding Alex McLeish's team selection in the build-up to this winner-takes-all match was whether he would opt for McFadden or Miller up front.

There were no real surprises in the Italian line-up with Antonio Di Natale, Mauro Camoranesi and Toni.

Italy may have had flair, technical ability and genuine star quality in their ranks but Scotland had belief and hope, on their side.

That belief was all but shattered after 70 seconds.

The Italians surged into the lead with less than two minutes on the clock and Scotland suffered the worst opening to the game.

Gianluca Zambrotta spotted Di Natale lurking unmarked in the box and picked him out with a throw-in as the Scotland defence were caught napping. Di Natale swept into the path of Toni who delicately flicked into the top left corner from the six-yard line.

Stunned, the home side almost conceded a second goal 60 seconds later. This time, Toni turned provider and his cut back was met by Camoranesi, who fired over from close-range as Hampden breathed a collective sigh of relief.

At the other end Scotland were denied the opportunity to haul themselves back into the match when a drive from Lee McCulloch appeared to be handled by Zambrotta inside the area but calls for a penalty were ignored by Spanish referee Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez.

Spurred on by a sense of injustice the hosts cranked up the pressure on their visitors.

Scotland produced some wonderful passing football, which culminated in a tight-angled drive from Ferguson, but Gianluigi Buffon dived low to smother.

Then came another scare for the home side. Craig Gordon was forced to pull a save out of the top drawer to deny a point-blank effort from Massimo Ambrosini, before Di Natale rifled the rebound into the back of the net.

Only last-gasp defending from the Italians prevented the Scots from grabbing a morale-boosting leveller on the stroke of half-time.

A free-kick provided Italy the chance to start the second half as emphatically as they had started the first when Paul Hartley hauled down Camoranesi just outside the box. Andrea Pirlo seized on the chance and looped the ball over the wall but his effort was easily dealt with by Gordon.

Instead, it was Scotland who found the net as Hampden erupted with 65 minutes gone.

McFadden's free-kick deflected into the path of McCulloch in front of goal. He was denied by Buffon, but the rebound fell kindly to Ferguson and the captain gratefully rifled home from a couple of yards.

But Scotland's impossible dream ended in the cruellest possible way when Italy snatched a last minute goal to secure their own qualification for Euro 2008.

Hutton appeared to be barged over in front of the corner flag but the referee inexplicably awarded the free-kick the other way and Panucci rose to meet Pirlo's cross and nod home the winner.

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Wales youngsters shine
Wales Under-21s boss Brian Flynn hailed an outstanding performance from his youngsters, who beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 4-0 at Wrexham last night in a UEFA championship qualifier. Read
Will somebody kindly explain how the outcome of last night's match in Tel Aviv can possibly have either increased or reduced by the merest fraction the fitness of Steve McClaren to continue managing the England football squad? Yet, regardless of the affront to logic, there was always practical justification for suggestions that McClaren's immediate prospects of staying in charge could be seen as hinging on Israel's ability to avoid losing to Russia. Now that the Israelis have beaten Guus Hiddink's men, and England need only a draw against Croatia at Wembley on Wednesday to qualify for the Euro 2008 finals, should we brace ourselves for noisy and euphoric talk of vindication?

Let's hope not. We are all entitled to be cheered up by the likelihood of participation in next summer's dramas, but it remains as difficult as ever to be seduced by the proposition that occurrences at the Ramat Gan stadium have given McClaren an automatic extension of his reign. It is a lot easier to acknowledge that such implications may be part of football's shabby version of realpolitik than it is to find anything convincing or admirable in the reasoning involved.

McClaren was exactly the same manager at full-time in Tel Aviv as he was at kick-off. Whatever grounds could be identified for firing him didn't change during an hour and a half on which he couldn't exert the slightest effect. We all know that football is a results-based business but is it reasonable to deliver judgment on a man's quality as a selector, organiser and leader of players on the basis of other people's results?

The criteria for deciding whether it is right to allow McClaren to go on managing England should always have been sought in his own and his team's performances. Yes, it was the inadequacy of those performances that gave yesterday's foreign action its powerful influence but didn't that mean help from the Israelis had to be irrelevant to any assessment of England and their manager?

Sven-Göran Eriksson's long-serv-ing lieutenant would never have been my choice as successor to the flawed Swede (happenings at Manchester City lately have little bearing on Eriksson's international record) but that didn't prevent me from sympathising with McClaren as the FA revealed a growing willingness to let their attitude to him be swayed by the hostile reaction of the fans. Since he took over, he has been mainly engaged in a struggle to recover from early and damaging failures.

The weight of culpability attached to him for the costly setbacks is considerable and so it should be, although there is an excuse for mildly sardonic amusement in the amnesia a few of his fiercest critics have developed about the apparently crucial input of his assistant, Terry Venables, to the grossly misconceived tactical experiment that contributed substantially to the 2-0 loss in Croatia.

For a while McClaren gave signs of improved handling of his responsibilities and, even when it was conceded that injury problems had pushed him towards positive decisions, he was due a measure of credit for showing evidence his thinking might be gaining in clarity and independence. But the omens became less encouraging again in recent weeks, especially in the light of the extraordinary pains he took to include David Beckham in his plans, despite the lack of competitive physical condition imposed on the game's supreme celebrity by his fraught experiences in America.

Maybe McClaren was unnerved by the 2-1 defeat in Moscow a month ago that consigned him to his present predicament, though to my mind that misery was shaped at least as much by bad breaks as by mistakes. On a night when England could regard themselves as unlucky to lose, the condemnation of the manager was excessive. So too, glaringly, was the praise of the opposing coach, Guus Hiddink. The Dutchman's gifts and his CV are unquestionably outstanding but he scarcely deserved to be hailed for making masterly use of substitutions when he had in fact baffled many familiar with Russia's resources by denying his team the disruptive vigour and proven scoring threat of Roman Pavlyuchenko until the 58th minute.

Steven Gerrard and Micah Rich-ards had squandered splendid chances to settle the contest in England's favour before Pavlyuchenko arrived to win it with his two goals. Hiddink carried all the good fortune that was going in Moscow but his reputation was a handy stick on an occasion when the scoreline was sufficient to ensure flagellation for McClaren.

Obviously, over the 15½ months McClaren has been in control, the welts on his credibility have been earned and in Vienna on Friday evening neither the personnel he deployed nor the display associated with a 1-0 victory over feeble Austrian opposition indicated that notable progress had been made since the departure of Eriksson. So a case could be constructed for dismissal, irrespective of last night's events in Tel Aviv. Indeed, whatever arguments were advanced for retaining or jettisoning McClaren should have required no reference to the impact of the Israel-Russia squabble.

One certainty is that it was shameful of the FA to permit the impression to spread that McClaren's fate might finally be decided by the mass jury of supporters. Everybody in football is obliged to have deep respect for the fans' place in the game but effectively firing managers should not be part of their role. Lynching is never an edifying spectacle. Notwithstanding the Israeli intervention, there will be a number of McClaren's pursuers still convinced all they have to do is wait for him to hang himself. But the way his luck is running, he may fancy his chances of lifting a trophy in the summer.

Pride comes before Scots fall
Scotland's dreams came soddenly to earth at sleet-drenched Hampden Park yesterday but the desperately late goal by Italy that brought a 2-1 defeat could not lessen national pride in an attempt to qualify for the Euro 2008 finals which, even at its brutally disappointing demise, must be seen as belonging among the most honourable achievements in the long history of professional football in one of its founding countries.

The Scots appeared to have been granted the kind of luck merited by the bravery they have shown throughout an inspired and inspiring campaign. They needed it to recover from finding themselves so dishevelled by extreme nervousness at the start of the match that they fell a goal behind after less than two minutes. Then Italy could feel robbed of a legitimate second goal by a linesman's mistaken offside decision and were further aggrieved after Scotland's captain, Barry Ferguson, turned in an equaliser when television replays indicated he was offside. But Scotland, who had worried the opposition profoundly in the second half, suffered a deadly swing of fortune against them when the ludicrous awarding of a free kick to Italy (it should have gone the other way) led to a scoring header by Christian Panucci in stoppage time. It was a savage blow. However, it is not the old hysterical Scottish hubris talking when my countrymen acclaim the sustained performance in the championship's toughest group as a genuine, pride-restoring triumph.

F1's lap of dishonour
Those magnificent men in their almost-flying machines were back in the headlines last week, nearly a month after the end of the Formula One season. To be more accurate, some corporate powers of the business were once again at loggerheads, which meant that sportsmanship knew better than to show its face. Martin Whitmarsh, chief executive of the McLaren F1 team, had barely stopped telling us that "like all true devotees of motor sport we would never like to see the drivers' championship decided in court rather than on the track" when the organisation's legal representative, Ian Mill QC, began formally arguing the case for awarding the world title to Lewis Hamilton on a technicality. McLaren had opted, after all, to seek the disqualification of three drivers who finished ahead of Hamilton at the final grand prix of the season in Brazil.

If the submission to an FIA court of appeal had succeeded in having Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld disqualified for infringing fuel regulations, Britain's inspired rookie would have been moved up to fourth place in the Brazil finishing order and would thus have supplanted Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen as world champion.

But, fortunately, McLaren's appeal was brusquely dismissed and they were left to rue an unsavoury attempt to lawyer their way to the title. It was just the latest in this season's sequence of fiascos, a catalogue dominated, of course, by the £50m fine slapped on McLaren after they were found to have perpetrated industrial espionage against Ferrari.

To Hamilton's credit, he always insisted he wanted no part of the kind of tainted glory that can be delivered by men in wigs. However, his sporting inclinations may have a hard time surviving in modern Formula One. These days petrol fumes don't create the strongest smell in the pit lane.

Two late goals, two very different stories, as the battering November surf of the North Sea fails to drive the British Isles under water for at least another cold, gray, drenching day.

England survive, without kicking a ball. Scotland, on the other hand, are out, as an emotionally draining Euro '08 qualifying campaign lurches into its final wrenching acts.

Such a bitter pill for the Scots. The Very-Dark-Blues were enjoying a brilliant run, seemingly home and dry with a place booked for their first major tournament in yonks. But then came an inexplicable loss to Georgia, featuring a teenaged 'keeper and unlikely under-20 goal scorer.

That left the Pride of the Glens the tricky task of not losing to Italy today at Hampden Park.

Barely had the first pints overflowed the sides of their glasses when the Italians surged ahead. Just seventy seconds was all Luca Toni of Bayern Munich needed to fire his Mediterranean mates in front. The Scots gamely and grimly equalized, through Barry Ferguson of Rangers, twenty minutes into the second half.

But all that did was set the stage for eventual heartache. It was duly delivered when Christian Panucci headed home the ninetieth-minute hammer blow, defeating the Scots and slamming shut the once-welcoming doors of Euro '08.

Scottish football and disaster are no strangers to each other, but this is a particularly painful setback. Eight wins in twelve qualifying games should have been more than enough – but the other four games were all lost. Not a single draw in the dross, and falling just a point or two short should keep Georgia on the minds of Scots footy lovers for an uncomfortably long time.

But what of England, you ask? 1-0 winners over Austria Friday, but it was a mere friendly with no effect – save that oft-injured striker Michael Owen hobbled off early, and may not be available on Wednesday when the bell rings for real.

England needed help from out of town today. Out of country. Heck! Off-continent. And they got it. A plucky Israel, whose goalie recently reassured England fans his side had a fine chance of getting a result against rampaging Russia, delivered a dramatic 2-1 triumph, with the winning goal – again – coming right at the death.

Had Russia won, England's fish would have been well and truly battered. England still has to beat Croatia in a very tricky match at New Wembley on Wednesday, but they no longer have to rely on Russia losing to Andorra. Even in gambling-mad Blighty, that is not a bet you want to have to place.

Even a draw could now get England through, because for all their sputtering setbacks throughout this shaky qualifying run, they somehow sport a sterling goal difference of plus-eighteen. That's plus-eight better than Russia, who will certainly be going all-out to put 9-0 on the board against the puny pride of the Pyrenees.

They might get it. England need to win.

But there's one crucial lesson the entire soccer world has learned over the past decade and more: you NEVER want to have to beat Croatia. Those guys are so scrappy, so skilled, so utterly comfortable destroying the hopes and ambitions of their opponents – and they're first overall and undefeated in the qualifying group: eight wins, two draws, plus-twenty-one.

At least Scotland lost on the pitch, with 51,000 of their own looking on. England, should Croatia hold them to a draw, will have to scoreboard-watch the Andorra game. Not exactly Britannia ruling the waves, wot?

And this is only qualifying!

Scotland's loss today, intriguingly, ensures the qualification of both World Cup finalists, Italy and France. Wouldn't it be something if we get a hugely hype-able rematch in the final of Euro '08? Zinedine Zidane coming out of retirement to atone for his headbutt from hell? I don't even want to think about it.

It's time for England to truly step up. That huge, cold, multi-gazillion-pound stadium they just treated themselves to was – literally – built for games like this. They need a clean win, over a desperately difficult foe, to show the world they belong with the continent's best next summer.

They got the block they needed from Israel. They mustn't allow themselves to need another from Andorra. GLASGOW - Scotland's Euro 2008 dreams were cruelly crushed after a 2-1 defeat at home to world champions Italy, courtesy of Christian Panucci's injury time winner.

Luca Toni had fired Italy into a second minute lead but Alex McLeish's side battled back bravely and deservedly levelled through captain Barry Ferguson in the second half.

Despite then bombarding Italy in the closing stages it was the visitors who scored the decisive second goal after the regulation 90 minutes had ended to book their own, and France's, place in the finals in Austria and Switzerland next summer.

Italy manager Roberto Donadoni could not hide his elation at the end but praised the Scottish team and their supporters.

He said: "I'm not going to get philosophical but I just wish everyone could feel the way I did in that dressing room after the game.

"It was fantastic for me to celebrate with the players at the end.

"But the Scottish fans have shown us how to get behind their team and how to behave before, during and after a game and we should learn from them.

"You could see the impact from the Scottish manager in their team and the players gave their all.

"For a team to achieve 24 points in a European Championship qualifying campaign is a fantastic achievement and it is not by luck or by chance that Scotland have achieved this."

Scotland manager Alex McLeish was bitterly disappointed and felt the result was unjust on his players.

He said: "We didn't deserve to lose. It would have been a long shot if we'd drawn and needed France to lose to Ukraine, but it wouldn't have been the worst result.

"For the last 15 minutes we had Italy on the ropes and I thought we were going to Austria and Switzerland.

"I feel so disappointed for the players and it's very unfortunate we're not going to the finals but we've given a few of the big teams a scare on the way."

Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro for his part reflected: "This was a victory won with the heart. It was difficult to play in this stadium, with that atmosphere it was like a cauldron.

"We played really well and managed to win. We showed once again that we are a strong and compact team and when we need to win we do everything to show that we are the world champions. In Italy we play a high level of football, we've won the Champions League and the World Cup but unfortunately at this moment we are being noticed for something else (the Lazio fan's death)."

Roared on by a capacity crowd of 51,301 Scotland needed a win to qualify for their first major finals since the France World Cup in 1998.

Nerves seemed to affect the Scottish players, though, and within two minutes they were trailing.

A quick throw-in caught their defence dozing, allowing Gianluca Zambrotta time to pick out Antonio Di Natale and his low cross was poked high into the roof of the net from close range by Toni.

There was then a major let-off for Scotland in the 32nd minute. Scotland's goalkeeper Craig Gordon made a fantastic one-handed save to prevent Massimo Ambrosini's shot from finding the back of the net and although Di Natale converted the rebound the assistant referee ruled it out for offside.

With the final action of the first half only Andrea Pirlo's goalline clearance prevented Scotland equalising after David Weir's header, from Ferguson's corner, beat Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

Italy started the second half strongly but in the 64th minute Scotland got back on level terms.

James McFadden's low free-kick was deflected into the path of Lee McCulloch and although his shot from six-yards was straight at Buffon the Italian keeper somehow spilled the shot, allowing Ferguson to slide the ball home.

Scotland were now in the driving seat and in the 81st minute Kenny Miller, who had replaced Scott Brown in the 74th minute, drove the ball across the face of goal, taking Buffon out of play, but James McFadden rushing in at the back post could not turn the ball into the empty net.

And in injury time Scotland were dealt the cruellest of blows when Pirlo's free-kick was met by Panucci who sent a looping header over the stranded Gordon and into the corner of the net.



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