Scotland should still make it to Euro 2024 but qualification will have to wait for another day and another place. A point in Seville would have sent them through with two games to spare, but a belting second-half goal from Scott McTominay that seemed to have put them into the lead and within touching distance of the tournament was ruled out, the cruel, controversial and confusing verdict handed down by the VAR, after which their resistance was finally broken. “We’re disappointed because we came here to qualify, but we have a very realistic chance to win the two games and that’s what we will focus on now,” the coach, Steve Clarke, said.
At first, it seemed that the referee Serdar Gozubuyuk had taken away yet another brilliant moment from the Manchester United midfielder because of the lightest of “fouls” on Unai Simón from Jack Hendry, but then appeared to change his mind and give offside instead. Asked if he would seek clarification, Clarke said: “What’s the point? Let’s move on.” Either way, he insisted, this had hurt. “A hammer blow,” in John McGinn’s words. The roar from the 4,000 Scotland fans had barely died down, joy killed by the small screen, when with 15 minutes remaining Álvaro Morata dived to head beyond Angus Gunn.
Scotland had held on from the beginning, showing the resilience that Clarke says is never lacking. It had taken 70 seconds for Spain to make the first chance; the problem for Luis de la Fuente’s team was that there wasn’t a better one, until the goal came. Mikel Merino’s pass slipped in Ferran Torres, one on one with Gunn, but while his shot went beyond the keeper, it also slipped past the far post. Two minutes later, a corner from Torres passed two men in the six-yard box on its way to the far post where Morata was diving in to head wide.
There were moments when Scotland escaped, a reminder they could threaten too, and they soon settled, mostly keeping Spain at arm’s length. A Robin Le Normand header went past the far post, Morata went round Gunn and hit the side netting, and Merino’s shot on the bounce came back off the post and spun all the way across the face of goal, between the line and Gunn, and out by the other post. When Morata did get the ball into the net towards the end of the first half, he was offside.
Scotland could be pleased with this, Clarke saying afterwards that there had been a lot that was good about their game, but not what came next. Simón leapt with Andy Robertson, who was forced to make way with a shoulder injury. Almost immediately, his replacement Nathan Patterson was caught by Alejandro Balde when trying to shepherd out a ball. The sight of Bryan Zaragoza, on as a half-time sub, was a worry too. A street footballer making his debut, a man who says he was born to dribble, the Granada winger immediately went at Scotland, flashing a shot just over the bar.
There was electricity now, Spain looking to Zaragoza repeatedly. Jesús Navas too was dashing forward at every opportunity on the other side. By now, Norway had scored in Larnaca, so Scotland knew they would have to do it themselves and for a moment they thought they had. A dreadful mistake from Dani Carvajal gave McTominay a free-kick from which he took Scotland’s first shot – and it was a hell of a shot. Horizontal to the goal and with everyone anticipating a cross, he smashed it straight into the top of the net, the Scots erupting.
VAR though called Gozubuyuk to look at Hendry in front of Simón. “It was confusing whether it was offside or a foul on goalkeeper,” Clarke said. Had it been the latter, which was what the referee signalled, it would have been extremely light; when the lines were later drawn, an alternative was offered. “He is marginally offside and when he steps towards the goalkeeper, Jack is involved in the play, but I tell you there is no way in the world that the keeper is saving that,” Clarke said. McGinn, meanwhile, said the referee had “changed [the decision]in-game, when he realises it’s not a foul”.
Worse followed swiftly. A superb, curling cross from Navas found Morata diving in to guide a header past Gunn and slip in the knife. It still wasn’t quite over: Hickey stumbled through to create a chance for Adams by the six-yard box, that Simón saved, then Armstrong somehow lifted over the bar from close range. Scotland were chasing; they were also caught, but they live to fight another day. “Maybe on Sunday Spain can do us a favour and we can qualify then – but it won’t be because of that, it will be because we have 15 points from six games,” Clarke said.