Scotland started the game brightly, with Chris Maguire and David Goodwillie causing no small amount of consternation amongst the physically imposing Austrian centre backs. However, just as the home side looked to be finding their rhythm, the Austrians scored against the run of play in the tenth minute. Werder Bremen’s Marko Arnautovic picked the ball up in midfield and unleashed a low drive from 30 yards out to Alan Martin’s right, which crept beyond the reach of the Leeds United goalkeeper.
However, to the young Scots’ credit, they did not let the loss of the first goal dampen their early enthusiasm. Maguire brilliantly controlled a Paul Caddis cross and had a snap shot well saved by Heinz Lindner, before David Goodwillie was desperately unlucky to see his half volley drift just wide of the Austrian post.
The sustained pressure was to pay off in the 29th minute when David Wotherspoon and Caddis linked well on the right, before the latter swung a menacing cross at the centre spot. The teasing ball was missed by attackers and defenders alike, but fell to the onrushing Barry Bannan on the far side of the box. The Aston Villa midfielder expertly controlled the ball on his chest, before unleashing a stunning half volley through the goalkeeper.
It was the least that Billy Stark’s side deserved and none more so than Bannan, who was tremendous throughout the match and gained some sweet revenge on some of the Rapid Vienna players who eliminated his club from the Europa League last month. With quick feet, direct running and an eye for a pass, the left sided midfielder could well find himself involved in the senior side sooner rather than later.
While Scotland were obviously buoyed by their equalising goal, it was the Austrians who ended the first half the stronger side. Martin made a superb one handed stop from an Arnautovic free kick from at least 35 yards out, while Alexander Grunwald’s floating cross had to be hacked clear with as little ceremony as possible.
The home side started the second half with a renewed sense of purpose. Wotherspoon and Bannan were finding space in wide areas, and the Austrians were being forced to defend in more deep areas than they had in the first half. This period also saw the first unwelcome glimpses of the darker side of the Austrian team, as Yasin Pehlivan was booked for persistent fouling, while Christian Ramsebner was fortunate to only receive a caution for an arm aimed at David Goodwillie.
As the second half drew on, Arnautovic started to grow in stature. Seen as something of a replacement for Mezut Ozil at Weserstadion, the towering forward was a threat throughout the match, and was shooting on sight. Two further free kicks from just outside the centre circle were fired at the Scotland goal with intent, before a measured shot from 18 yards out came back off Alan Martin’s left hand post and was frantically cleared. Everything positive that Austria created was coming through the forward, who has scored two goals in his first two games for Werder Bremen and has already received five full caps for his country.
By now, Stark had sent on James Forrest for David Wotherspoon, and it was no coincidence that Scotland started looking more likely to find a winner in the final fifteen minutes. Maguire tested the goalkeeper from 18 yards, before Barry Bannan beat three men and sent a measured lob just wide of the goalkeeper’s right hand post.
The good work was very nearly undone with five minutes to play when Alan Martin’s weak clearance landed at the feet of Atdhe Nuhiu, who was left with a clear run on goal. Despite the option to play a pass for an almost certain winner, Nuhiu hesitated and Martin was able to produce a fine save at the feet of the onrushing striker. Billy Stark later commented “when the striker goes one on one you are sitting watching your life drifting away. We got away with that, and I felt maybe it was going to be our day”.
Stark’s feeling was entirely validated when Chris Maguire scored the winner in the 89th minute. The word “stunning” is used all too often in football, but there will be few goals scored by Scottish players that merit the term in every sense of the word. James Forrest collected the ball on the left wing, and there seemed little danger when he played it centrally to Maguire. Ignoring Forrest’s pleas for a return ball, the Aberdeen striker had only one thing on his mind as he turned and fired a swerving drive into the top left corner of the goal from 25 yards out.
As Scotland edged closer to the European Championship playoff, the Austrians lost their already fragile discipline. Yasin Pehlivan miraculously avoided a second booking for manhandling Forrest and raising his hands to Paul Coutts, a spat which continued after the final whistle with the Austrian refusing to shake the latter’s hand.
Maguire was clearly delighted with his late winner: “Time and again we’ve found late goals. We did it against Belarus and we’ve done it again”. Under 21 boss Billy Stark was unsurprisingly in similarly good spirits: “It was never in doubt”, he joked, “you don’t see many of them (Maguire’s winner) to the dozen. We wanted Maguire to get a chance like that. When it went in there was plenty of calmness on the bench. We were all jumping about like eejits”.
Now Stark must wait to find out who his young charges will face in the playoff next month, but even the prospect of facing the likes of Italy or the Netherlands holds no fears: “We may get one of the major players. We could come up against players that have been transferred for millions of pounds but I don’t think I would worry about any team, having the team characteristics that we have”.