It has been quite the rollercoaster for the Scotland national team and the Tartan Army over the last twelve months. In that time period, they diced with qualification death in the inaugural UEFA Nations League before pulling a James Forrest inspired rabbit out of the hat against Israel last November to relieve pressure on beleaguered boss Alex McLeish and secure a playoff spot for UEFA EURO 2020 next March.
They then had a nightmare in Nur-Sultan to begin the automatic qualifying phase for next summer's tournament back in March as they were embarrassed by Kazakhstan before a sloppy display in Serravalle saw off the minnows of San Marino but also brought the end, eventually, to the reign of McLeish at the helm.
New manager Steve Clarke, fresh from a record-breaking season in the Scottish Premiership with Kilmarnock was the popular choice with the fans but he picked up where the team had previously left off as they delivered a nerve-shredding performance in June at home to Cyprus that threatened disaster with a late Cypriot equalizer only for Oliver Burke to save the day with an even later winner to keep Scotland's head above water.
With Russia in town on Friday night, the ever familiar optimism and hope returned for the Scots but it was clear that the Russians really had to leave Glasgow empty-handed to ensure Scotland still had a chance in the group after they picked up nine of a possible 12 points previously, losing only to Belgium away in Brussels.
Story of the match
Hampden Park has often been criticized for it's apparent lack of atmosphere but it was electric come kick-off time in the south side of the city and Scotland duly responded on the pitch with an energetic opening as they pressed their Russian visitors and looked confident and, more importantly, comfortable on the ball.
A couple of nearly moments in the first ten minutes came and went for but they capitalized on the bright opening soon after and found the early goal. AFC Bournemouth's Ryan Fraser with a cross from the left that confounded Guilherme in the goal, his attempt at saving the shot only succeeding in presenting Aston Villa midfielder John McGinn with a gaping goal to create pandemonium inside this historic old stadium. It was a dream start and ever so welcome too to ease any accumulated nerves on the night.
Scotland though failed to press home their advantage. Steve Clarke was known at Kilmarnock for his dogged, defensive sides that were able to grind out results and it seemed to be a trademark that would be applied to his Scotland team too as the dark blue shirts fell back into formation, inviting pressure that simply hadn't been there at all in the opening period and allowed Russia to play to their strengths and cause a creaky Scottish defence problems.
It wasn't exactly a siege on their goal but composed play had quickly turned into panicked clearances and a team that had started disciplined had suddenly lost all cohesion. The ball just kept coming back but Artem Dzyuba's shot saved only by the fingertips of David Marshall was the closest Russia actually came to goal until five minutes before the interval.
It was the Zenit St. Petersburg man that delivered the body blow. Aleksandr Golovin, who was a world away from the principality he plays his club football in at Monaco, was the source of anything good that the Russians created although perhaps Andy Robertson should have done better with his challenge that fell kindly to Dzyuba in the middle of the box. A noted marksman like that was simply not going to miss as he grabbed his twenty-second international goal.
If there was any hope that the second half would have a change of narrative, the Scots were in for a shock as Golovin looked set to have Russia ahead within ninety seconds only to be denied by a great block by Charlie Mulgrew. The Blackburn defender was helpless to prevent the second for Sbornaya as the ball from left by Golovin was nudged over the line by a combination of Yury Zhirkov and Stephen O'Donnell as Marshall struggled to get across his goal to prevent it.
Scotland were battered and bruised and almost pleading for the knockout blow. Only the woodwork came to their rescue as the visitors were denied twice by the frame, first was Mario Fernandes before a deflected shot from Magomed Ozdoev kissed the post and let the Scots know that perhaps all luck hadn't deserted them just yet in this one.
Russia had yet more opportunities to put the game to bed as the home side pushed for an equalizer that, in all honesty, would have done little to change the landscape of Group I but in the end, the one-goal advantage was enough as the shrill peep of Greek referee Anastasios Sidiropoulos' whistle signalled the end of the game and maybe just the end of Scotland's slim hopes of automatic qualification too.
Same old story...
Scotland are quite the enigma. This nation has been chewed up and spat out on the international scene so many times since their last major tournament in 1998 but still the support, for the most part, remains. Hampden Park has been a soulless place at times in recent years when the going has been tough but as soon as there is the slightest hope, the supporters get behind their team again just like at home vs. Israel last November.
This one was no different. Not a sellout by any means but a strong crowd nonetheless in another vital qualifier for Scotland and once again the familiar tale had the all so familiar ending. Scotland are clinging on to qualification hopes. They would need something approaching a miracle in their home game vs. Belgium on Monday and when they travel to Moscow in just under one month to claim an automatic spot at next summer's ball that will see their own stadium host four matches.
Scotland falls back on a play-off spot regardless by virtue of their results in their Nations League campaign and Hampden will be full for that particular match once again in the hope that for once the story has a happier ending.
It wasn't a night for standout players on the Scotland side despite their promising start. John McGinn was the quickest to react to open the scoring but he was subbed off in the second half for Ryan Christie who ultimately failed to change the game but the Celtic midfielder provided the energy and spark to suggest he could have made a difference from the start.
Mulgrew deserves credit for some important blocks while Marshall prevented this from being worse for Scotland with some impressive saves.
As for Russia, it was Golovin that stood out. His quick feet and creativity were more than a handful and he was unlucky not to find himself on the scoresheet. Dzyuba was also clinical with his finishing for the opening goal that began to turn the game in his side's favour.
Friday night marked the first competitive home defeat for Scotland in just one day shy of four years. A 3-2 defeat to the reigning World champions, Germany but those that left Hampden that night were buoyed by a spirited display that saw their side peg the Germans back twice. Fast forward from 2015 to 2019 and this display against a much less spectacular Russian side left Scotland deflated.
Better is needed but it will be too late for this qualifying campaign. It is that familiar story that will be offered a diversion only via the play-off route in March. The hope and optimism will return and perhaps maybe Scotland will too to a major tournament but you would suspect this rollercoaster has some more thrilling, stomach-churning loops left to navigate just yet.