Scotland's dream of qualification for Euro 2008 came to a heart-breaking end at Hampden as they lost following a heroic effort against world champions Italy. Hopes of participating at next summer's finals appeared to be all but over when Luca Toni fired the visitors into the lead in the second minute, before Barry Ferguson threw Scotland a lifeline. James McFadden came so close to a late winner, firing wide as he stretched to meet Kenny Miller's cross. But the cruellest of twists was to come as Christian Panucci inflicted a fatal blow in the 90th minute to guarantee Italy and France would be heading to Austria and Switzerland, while Scotland's long wait to dine at football's top table continues. Scotland have gone from no-hopers to over-achievers to genuine contenders in next to no time, but this match proved to be a step too far for a team who will still be regarded as heroes for their efforts throughout an incredible campaign. The biggest debate surrounding Alex McLeish's team selection in the build-up to this winner-takes-all match was whether he would opt for McFadden or Miller up front. Miller had form against the Italians, netting in a 1-1 draw here back in 2005, but goals against Lithuania, Ukraine and, of course, France in this campaign meant McFadden was given the nod as the lone striker. There were no real surprises in the Italian line-up, with Antonio Di Natale, Mauro Camoranesi and Toni - who bagged a double the last time the two nations met - forming a formidable three-pronged attack. Toni was the central striker.
Not what we wanted to see on the new scoreboard
Italy may have had flair, technical ability and genuine star quality within their ranks but Scotland had belief, as well as hope, on their side. Not only that, but a whole nation believed. Saltires and lion ramparts fluttered from the windows of cars, houses and businesses as the whole country threw their backing behind a team who had captured the imagination over the course of an incredible journey. That belief was all but shattered after 70 seconds. Fireworks marked the arrival of both teams onto the pitch but were nothing compared to the explosive start from the Italians as they surged into the lead with less than two minutes on the clock and Scotland suffered the worst possible opening to the game. Gianluca Zambrotta spotted Di Natale lurking, unmarked in the box, and picked him out with a throw-in as the Scotland defence were caught napping. Di Natale swept into the path of Toni who delicately flicked into the top left corner from the six-yard line. Stunned, the home side almost conceded a second goal 60 seconds later. This time, Toni turned provider and his cut-back was met by Camoranesi who fired over from close-range as Hampden breathed a collective sigh of relief. Clearly still hungry for more, Toni then shrugged off two blue jerseys before drawing a decent save from Craig Gordon with a well-struck effort that the goalkeeper did well to block at the near post.
Could they not have watched Toni this closely in the first couple of minutes?
At the other end, Scotland were denied the opportunity to haul themselves back into the match when a thunderous drive from Lee McCulloch appeared to be handled by Zambrotta inside the area but screams for a penalty were ignored by Spanish referee Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez. Spurred on by a sense of injustice, the hosts cranked up the pressure on their visitors. Ferguson fired over from a McFadden corner, before Alan Hutton nodded agonisingly wide of the upright following another perfect delivery from the Everton man. Scotland then produced some wonderful passing football, which culminated in a tight-angled drive from Ferguson, but Gianluigi Buffon dived low to smother. Then came another scare for the home side. Gordon was forced to pull a save out of the top drawer to deny a point-blank effort from Massimo Ambrosini, before Di Natale rifled the rebound into the back of the net. The assistant referee raised his flag for offside but television replays suggested the official may have called it wrong. Only last-gasp defending from the Italians prevented the Scots from grabbing a morale-boosting leveller on the stroke of half-time. David Weir rose above everyone else in a packed box to meet Ferguson's corner and his header appeared to be heading for the top corner before Andrea Pirlo somehow managed to nod off the line.
A free-kick in a dangerous area provided Italy with the chance to start the second half as emphatically as they had started the first when Paul Hartley hauled down Camoranesi just outside the box. Pirlo seized on the chance and looped the ball over the wall but, despite a reputation as a dead-ball specialist, his effort was easily dealt with by Gordon. Instead, it was Scotland who found the back of the net as Hampden erupted with 65 minutes gone. McFadden's free-kick deflected into the path of McCulloch in front of goal. He was denied by Buffon, but the rebound fell kindly to an offside Ferguson and the captain gratefully rifled home from a couple of yards. With just over 15 minutes to go, Scott Brown was withdrawn for Miller as Scotland went for broke. The Derby striker quickly began to cause the Italians problems and delivered a wonderful diagonal cross to the feet of McFadden but the man already regarded as a national hero fired wide when it looked so much easier to leave the net bulging. Instead, Scotland's impossible dream ended in the cruellest possible way when Italy snatched a last minute goal to secure their own qualification for Euro 2008. Hutton appeared to be barged over in front of the corner flag but the referee inexplicably awarded the free-kick the other way and Panucci rose to meet Pirlo's cross and nod home the winner.
All eyes on the ball
Scotland: Gordon, Hutton, Weir, McManus, Naysmith, Brown (Miller 74), Fletcher, Hartley, Ferguson, McCulloch (Boyd 90), McFadden.
Subs Not Used: McGregor, Alexander, Caldwell, Pearson, Robson
Booked: Naysmith, McCulloch
Goal: Ferguson 65
Italy: Buffon, Panucci, Cannavaro, Barzagli, Zambrotta, Camoranesi (Chiellini 83), Gattuso (De Rossi 87), Pirlo, Ambrosini, Di Natale (Iaquinta 68), Toni
Subs Not Used: Amelia, Oddo, Perrotta, Gilardino
Goals: Toni 2, Panucci 90
Ref: Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez (Spain)