So much for tight, grim affairs between Scotland and Israel. A seventh meeting in three years broke the mould of anything that had come before. This was a breathless encounter, a game for the ages, as befitting the long-awaited return of a capacity crowd to this stadium.
The final act was the defining one. Scott McTominay knew little about the goal which sent Scotland to within touching distance of a World Cup play-off. He bundled a John McGinn corner home with his thigh to send Steve Clarke into raptures. Scotland now lead Israel by four points in Group F and, should Clarke’s men see off the Faroe Islands and Moldova in upcoming fixtures, second place behind Denmark will be theirs. The visit of the Danes to Glasgow in November would, in that scenario, be irrelevant.
“We left the goal a bit late for everyone’s blood pressure,” said Clarke with a smile. “Fifty-thousand fans staying right to the death was amazing. It was a strange night – not really like any other game we’ve played against Israel.”
Eran Zahavi had given Israel the lead. McGinn hauled Scotland back into proceedings. Mu’nas Dabbur edged the visitors in front again, before Lyndon Dykes saw his Scotland penalty saved. Dykes atoned by delivering the game’s fourth goal, with some assistance from VAR. Matters had settled down to a dull roar before McTominay’s finest moment in Scotland colours. The spirit is such within this Scotland camp that there was a sense, legitimately as it transpired, that they could snatch victory. Halfway through six minutes of stoppage time came the kind of moment that defines successful campaigns.
Scotland should have been ahead before Zahavi’s strike punctured the electric Hampden atmosphere. Che Adams scooped the ball into the hands of the grateful Ofir Marciano after just 40 seconds, in the kind of wasteful act that tends to come back to haunt teams. The routinely impressive Zahavi emphasised that very point.
Jack Hendry, one of umpteen Scotland players who looked shaky during the early exchanges needlessly shoved over Zahavi 20 yards from the home goal. The silence in the stands was in acknowldgement of Zahavi’s goal-finding expertise, and the PSV man duly stepped forward to curl a glorious free-kick beyond the diving but helpless Craig Gordon.
Scotland’s response was low-key – a Dykes shot smartly saved by Marciano was about the sum of it – before McGinn restored parity. Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson, on the occasion of his 50th cap, combined before McGinn found himself with a clear view of goal. The Aston Villa midfielder displayed wonderful composure to pass the ball high beyond Marciano with his left foot.
How shortlived Scottish optimism proved to be. Dismal defending will be cited after a routine free-kick ricocheted around the penalty area but there was an element of freakishness about the moments before Dabbur continued his recently prolific international streak. Gordon saved well after a Dykes clearance rebounded off Dor Peretz and back towards his own goal. Dabbur picked up the scraps, tapping home the rebound from close range. Scotland appealed in vain for a Peretz handball.
There was further agony for those in dark blue before the interval. A wild challenge from Bibras Natcho on Billy Gilmour quite logically led to a spot-kick. Dykes hit a straight effort that Marciano booted clear.
“At half-time we knew we had to wake up,” said McTominay. Gilmour, inspired after the break, typified Scotland’s rejuvenation. Just days after Scottish clubs debated the introduction of VAR in their competitions, that very tool helped the national team claw itself back into the game. There was indeed nothing wrong with Dykes’s prodding of a Robertson cross past Marciano but Ofri Arad, having thrown his head towards the boot of the Queens Park Rangers striker, appealed for dangerous play. The referee initially agreed before a check confirmed the goal should stand.
Gordon denied Zahavi. Marciano clawed away a net-bound Dykes header. The game turned into a fast, furious cup tie, fuelled by Israel’s sense of injustice and Scotland’s belief that three points could be returned after all.
McGinn passed up a terrific chance from Ryan Christie’s cut-back. Israel looked happy to settle for a point, but Scotland were not: enter McTominay. Clarke, arms aloft at full-time, truly epitomised the mood of a nation.