Scotland 2 Ireland 1
This was absorbing but not rewarding from an Irish perspective, a Celtic derby full of bite where a young Irish side allowed a lead to slip from their grasp in a frenetic second half where Scotland showed more composure when it mattered.
Stephen Kenny and his staff will travel home with a journey packed with what ifs, particularly a horrible miss from Troy Parrott when this game was level and then the anguish of conceding a penalty to a routine set piece with Alan Browne penalised for handball in an aerial challenge.
With seven players aged 23 and under in his starting eleven, Kenny can reasonably say that it’s another step in the learning curve and taking this game in isolation would not be a cause for concern about the development of this team under his watch.
They went toe to toe with an opponent that has better players at this point in time.
However, a return of four points from five matches has weakened Ireland’s seeding and playoff position with a view to the bigger picture of Euro 2024 qualifying and they will need a strong showing against Armenia on Tuesday to finish this campaign on a high.
Scotland’s celebration at the end highlighted the hurt they felt when they were picked apart in Dublin and provided further proof that Nations League fixtures really do matter.
They have done a much better job at exploiting the opportunities provided by the competition than Irish teams.
It was the opening loss in Yerevan that put Ireland on the back foot in this group.
A second string Ukraine’s five goal win at that venue earlier in the day added insult to injury and also made victory essential here if Kenny’s men were to secure a top two finish.
It looked on the cards at the break but a year on from Portugal, when a John Egan goal was wiped out by a second half comeback from the hosts, history repeated albeit not in as heartbreaking a manner.
It was all going so well.
Ireland’s first instinct from the tip was to take the ball and try and dribble through the Scottish players around the centre of circle, a statement of intent that paved the way for a somewhat chaotic opening.
But when it eventually settled down, orange shirts were reasonably comfortable. Scotland stuck with the back four that was effective against Ukraine midweek, a change at odds with the norm under Steve Clarke.
Kenny went with freshness in his back three with Shane Duffy sidelined and Egan taking the central role with Nathan Collins and Dara O’Shea either side. Scotland introduced QPR’s Lyndon Dykes as their striker in place of Che Adams, a switch lending itself to directness rather than sharp movement.
Ireland were happy with that. John McGinn played off him, and tried to drift from side to side to get involved but the play was pretty much ahead of the Irish rearguard.
Michael Obafemi and Troy Parrott were reunited after their summer exploits in the first meeting and while there were moments demonstrating their relative inexperience, they sought to press hard with Jayson Molumby and Jason Knight the second line of the press with Josh Cullen conducting from behind.
Scotland weren’t capable of playing at a tempo to upset Ireland’s rhythm. And their hesitancy gave Ireland encouragement.
Parrott had a goal correctly ruled out for offside, but the opportunity that opened up to breach the lines was encouraging.
It was industry up front that paved the way for the breakthrough with Obafemi winning the ball at the halfway line and driving on to create a chance for Parrott who forced a corner when he perhaps might have squared for Knight.
The gripes quickly faded to irrelevance when McClean’s delivery was eventually recovered by Molumby who outbattled Callum McGregor, thus allowing Collins to tee up Egan for an excellent right footed finish.
Scotland did have their moments prior to the interval but they were fleeting. Granted, Ireland have conceded strikes from distance in previous games but it was a relief to see Scotland to resort to speculative attempts.
They did step up as the half progressed and there was space in behind that Ireland might have exposed with better decision making.
The loss of Kieran Tierney to injury added to Scottish woes, yet they were decent before the break when Cullen was lucky to avoid a second yellow.
The interval provided an opportunity to regroup yet similar to the last outing with Ukraine, it was the opposition who benefited from it, levelling before the 50th minute mark.
Matt Doherty’s quality on the ball was evident throughout but his defending was exposed by a jink from Ryan Christie who eased into space to send over a cross for the unmarked Jack Hendry to convert.
The centre half had advanced forward in general play to take up the position, a reflection of a much more assertive attitude from Clarke’s charges.
Ireland struggled to breathe in the period that followed with Kenny quickly readying Chiedozie Ogbene, although the departing Obafemi – clearly unhappy to be replaced – had one big contribution left in him.
After a Scottish corner broke down, Ireland were 2 v 2 and Obafemi’s pace and awareness presented Parrott with a gilt edged 1 v 1 opportunity but the youngster’s execution was terrible with Craig Gordon saving with his feet. Pivotal.
It would have been a punch in the gut for Scotland and they were asking more questions as the game entered its final quarter with Bazunu alert to save from the busy sub Ryan Fraser and Doherty needed to make a timely intervention from a well worked corner.
In an entertaining battle, Scotland were edging ahead on points in boxing speak with Fraser and Christie’s movement upsetting the Irish shape.
A tired foul from Doherty showcased that he was flagging and Séamus Coleman was summoned in a treble switch that saw Alan Browne and Callum Robinson replace Molumby and Parrott.
But Egan, Collins and O’Shea remained busy, all making their share of blocks with no sign of Scotland taking a step back even though turning a draw into a win would make no impact on their task against Ukraine on Tuesday.
However, the Scots kept pushing and their eighth corner of the match was the vital one with a clumsy leap from Browne resulting in a handball decision that was supported by VAR.
They let Christie take it with his calm conversion adding to Irish angst.
Tempers frayed in the dying stages with Scotland enjoying their position of control in a revenge mission, with their superior application at pressure points demonstrating they are further down the road in their development.