Slovenia 2-2 Scotland: Dramatic draw sees Scotland pipped to second by Slovakia
By Michael Hincks
Last Updated: 09/10/17 6:26am
Scotland's hopes of reaching the World Cup play-offs ended with a 2-2 draw in Slovenia, as Slovakia ran out 3-0 winners over Malta to secure second in Group F.
Leigh Griffiths had Scottish fans dreaming at half-time after his volley from a narrow angle fired in off the post (32) but substitute Roman Bezjak turned the game on its head with two goals (52, 72) as Slovenia grew stronger in the second half.
Robert Snodgrass' late equaliser (88) set up a tense finale, but Scotland could not find the all-important winner despite coming close twice in the dying minutes and seeing Bostjan Cesar sent off for the hosts (90+2).
The draw left Scotland on 18 points, with Slovakia finishing ahead of them on goal difference.
Group F final standings
Slovenia knew only victory over Scotland and a slip-up from Slovakia would see them finish second, and the hosts duly shot out the blocks with Josip Ilicic and Tim Matavz testing Craig Gordon early on.
Scotland meanwhile overcame their early jitters and grew into the game, with Chris Martin forcing Jan Oblak into making his first save after 18 minutes.
The visitors then managed to do what England and all other Group F sides could not manage, and that was score a goal past Oblak in Slovenia in this qualifying campaign. It came in the 32nd minute as James McArthur's looping header found Griffiths at a narrow angle, and the Celtic forward volleyed it back across goal and in off the far post.
Slovenia: Oblak (5), Struna (6), Mevlja (6), Cesar (5), Jokic (6), Kurtic (7), Rotman (6), Repas (6), Ilicic (8), Matavz (6), Verbic (7)
Subs: Skubic (6), Vetrih (6), Bezjak (8)
Scotland: Gordon (7), Tierney (7), Mulgrew (6), Berra (6), Robertson (7), D. Fletcher (7), McArthur (7), Bannan (6), Phillips (6), Martin (5), Griffiths (7)
Subs: Anya (6), Snodgrass (7), Fletcher (6)
Man of the match: Josip Ilicic
Slovenia responded well, and they were level seven minutes into the second half as Ilicic's cross was headed in by Bezjak, who came on at half-time for the hosts.
Gordon then made a superb reaction save to deny Bezjak again, but he was powerless to prevent the SV Darmstadt forward from putting Slovenia ahead with a calm finish following Miha Mevlja's lay back.
Darren Fletcher then somehow skied an effort over with just over 10 minutes to go, but they did find an equaliser through Snodgrass, who chested the ball down before looping it over the onrushing Oblak.
Chris Martin and James McArthur came into Scotland's starting XI, while James Forrest dropped to the bench and James Morrison was out of the squad after suffering an injury.
Roman Bezjak and Andraz Sporar were named on the bench, while Rene Krhin was suspended. In came Jan Repas, Tim Matavz and Jasmin Kurtic.
A frantic final few minutes followed as Oblak dived to prevent a deflected cross squeezing in at the near post and then saved a Snodgrass header, those chances falling either side of Slovenia captain Cesar being sent off on his 100th appearance, having picked up two yellows in a matter of minutes.
It was a cruel end to Scotland's World Cup qualifying campaign, and attention now turns to whether Gordon Strachan will continue as head coach, having been in the hot seat since 2013.
Man of the match - Josip Ilicic
The Atalanta midfielder looked a cut above the rest in Ljubljana. He posed a constant attacking threat for Slovenia, assisting Bezjak's first before sending in the corner which led to his second.
Ilicic's efforts matched his impressive showing in the 1-0 loss to England, he was arguably the best player on the pitch at Wembley on Thursday, and he proved to be again on Sunday evening.
Manager reaction - Gordon Strachan
"Genetically we are behind. In the last campaign, we were the second smallest, apart from Spain.
"We had to pick a team to combat the height and strength at set-plays. Genetically we have to work at things, maybe we get big women and men together and see what we can do.
"But it is a problem for us because we have to fight harder for every ball and jump higher than anyone else.
"Nobody can tell me their technique, apart from one player, is better than any of ours. But physically we have a problem. We seem to be able to battle it and get through just with sheer determination and skill and work-rate. And that takes a lot out of you."