The challenge of overcoming the two goal deficit from the first leg proved too much for Scotland’s Under 21s tonight at Easter Road. It will be the Croatians who will be marching into the EURO2004 finals while Scotland stay at home and lick their wounds again. The final score in the record books will show the result of the tie as 2-1 but that does not tell the full story of the second leg. A respectable crowd on 11,992 fans turned up at Easter Road and watched as the chances came Scotland's way but Lady Luck decided to stay at home.
The SFA did not get their wish for a full house but the majority that did make it to the game appeared to be Hibs fans going by the reaction to the listing of the team. Scotland’s Under 21s were ready for the fray from the off. Although Easter Road had a slightly unreal atmosphere, with the East Stand standing empty at the start of the game, it did not stop Hibs’ Garry O’Connor nearly scoring within 30 seconds of the start of the game. If only his leg was 6 inches longer! This was an omen for the way the rest of the game was to go. Looking at my notes, there are around three pages on Scotland’s moves and one on Croatia’s. The visitors were happy to use any tactic to slow the game down or waste time and were rarely seen as an attacking force. They appeared to be happy to shoot from around 20 yards but very few if any were troublesome for Craig Gordon in the home goal.
Scotland were keen to get revenge for losing away from home and kept the pressure on the visitors goal It only took 11 minutes for Scotland to give the fans what they were waiting for. O'Connor found space in the penalty area and headed Steven Hammell's fine cross over Tomislav Vranjic to take the lead on the night. Vranjic then did well to save Hammell's effort from Peter Canero's inviting cross while Gareth Williams shot straight at the Croatian keeper when he should really have done better. O'Connor fired just over the bar before Vranjic made a brilliant point-blank save to deny Canero just before half time. It was all Scotland but the the piece of luck needed just would not happen.
The second half started with Scotland carrying on where they left off pressing for the equaliser. The chances came and went with the Croatians being given the benefit of the doubt so many times by the Norwegian referee. Some of their strong arm tackles went unpunished after the interval with John Kennedy wasting a good opportunity while Vranjic made another good save to deny Simon Lynch. Stuart Duff wasted the best chance of a second goal in the 66th minute when he somehow managed to turn Shaun Maloney's cross wide from six yards out when it seemed easier to score. The pressure on the Croatian goal was intense but the telling pass always seemed to elude a Scottish foot or head. As the minutes ticked away Scotland won a series of corners with at least two penalties deserving to be awarded for blatant holding as the ball was swung in . However, the referee would have none of it. He also would have none of quick free kicks as everybody had to play to his whistle. Unfortunately, the one whistle we did not want to hear came all too soon and once again, Scotland have to suffer the injustice of missing out of a competition finals.
Scotland: Gordon, Duff, Hammell, Williams, Kennedy, Kerr, Canero, Murray, Kyle, Maloney and O’Connor
Subs: McGregor, Dillon, Montgomery, Hughes, McManus, Stewart and Lynch
Croatia: Vranjic, Buljat, Pranjic, Drpic, Lucic, Jese, Safaric, Hikulic, Ljubojevic, Kranjar and Petric
Subs: Sarlija, Linic, Gal, Brkic, Zgela, Cosic and Zahora
Referee: Tommy Skjerven (Norway)