Falkirk Stadium on a Scotland Under 21 night. You just can’t beat the pre-game atmosphere of liniment worn by the ball boys (or ball attendants if you don’t mind) as they get drowned in the corporate identity of the national side. Some of the boys are in for a cold night and they look about 12 and wearing men’s tracksuits and bibs. Cruelty I calls it, cruelty.
Azerbaijan keeper Salahat Aghayev was forced to make early saves from David Goodwillie and Jamie Murphy which looked to have set the tone for the rest of the night. However, the visitors were keen to get their first point of the campaign and in the sixth minute Nizami Hajiyev drew a decent save from Alan Martin with a drive from the edge of the box. Scotland should have headed the warning as it was Haiiyev who scored the opening goal. Scotland were stunned when they went down to a goal from Haiiyev who was the trickiest player in the visitors team. Scotland thought they had cleared their lines but Haiiyev controlled the ball about 20 metres out and sent in speculative shot which took a wicked bounce past Martin in the Scotland goal. The goal was greeted with stunned silence from the 2,793 hardy souls who had ignored the chance to watch the game on Sky and braved the freezing conditions.The prospect of an embarrassing defeat for Stark's side eased in the 32nd minute when they drew level from the spot after Tural used his hand to prevent Goodwillie's header from a Maguire cross finding the net. After the Azerbaijan defender departed for first use of the showers, Maguire slotted in the penalty and a more relaxed Scotland side began to increase the pressure on the visitors' goal.
In the match programme, Billy Stark spelt out the simple task ahead for his charges, win the next three games and look forward to qualifying from Group 10. Simple really. Scotland started the night on 12 points alongside Belarus and behind Austria by a point but with a game in hand on the Group leaders.
Pity that that turned out to be the best position we could enjoy tonight. Scotland failed to repeat the performance against Azerbaijan in Baku and could only secure one point coming from behind twice to secure a 2-2 draw against 10 men Azerbaijan. This did take them to the top of the group on goal difference. Scotland now top the group with 13 points but will have to improve before the start again in September. Their next game is against Belarus on 4 September before meeting Austria on 7 September at Pittodrie. Azerbaijan managed to get their first point of the campaign tonight and they enjoyed their end of game celebrations.
Scotland’s generosity was welcomed by the Azerbaijan backroom staff who tucked into the pies and coffee on offer at half-time. Scotland should not have been so generous in the first half.
Azerbaijan, though, held firm until the break and in the 63rd minute, out of the blue, they sensationally forged ahead again when Abdullayev drove a wonderful shot from the edge of the box across Martin and into the net. Stark immediately replaced Goodwillie with Griffiths and with his first touch of the ball two minutes later, the Dundee striker headed Maguire's perfect cross past Aghayev from eight yards out. Scotland pressed for the winner against the tiring 10 men but Maguire watched in agony as his curling shot from 16 yards escaped the far post. Substitute Stephen McGinn, on for Paul Coutts, had the ball in the net with five minutes remaining but was incorrectly ruled offside. In the post-game interviews, Stark generously gave the referee's assistant the benefit of the doubt that he was flagging for Leigh Griffiths heading out of the attack at the time.
Stark went onto say he was disappointed that his side did not reach the heights achieved in previous games. He said: "It was an opportunity missed. They (Azerbaijan) were far better than they showed over there and the proved that. They were in good nick and they had a game plan to get the goal supported that they took a great lift from that. We obviously got rocked by that and did not get going at all. We stood off them a bit, gave them a bit too much room and they had a couple of quick players that round about the goal we started to get a bit closer gain more procession in the middle of the park, something which we have done well in the past. you are feeling that at half-time we should be able to do it. It is a learning experience and we got a bit anxious and lose our shape a wee bit and that results in them getting a terrific goal which again knocked the stuffing out of us a fair bit. But we responded well and scored a terrific goal by Leigh Griffiths."
Scotland U21: Martin, Caddis, Easton, Scobbie, Perry, Coutts, Arfield, McDonald, Maguire, Goodwillie, Murphy.
Subs: Gallacher, Mitchell, Wilson, McGinn, Shinnie, Griffiths, Loy
Goals: Maguire 32 pen, Griffiths 65
Azerbaijan U21: Agayev, Tural Akhundov, Vurgun Huseynov, Tarlan Guliyev, Abdullayev, Emin Guliyev, Javid Huseynov, Amirquliev, Quluzada, Seyidov, Hajiyev. Subs: Novruz Mammadov, Novruzov, Mustafayev, Agil Mammadov, Rahimov, Imamverdiyev, Huseyn Akhundov
Sent Off: Tural Akhundov (32)
Goals: Hajiyev 13, Abdullayev 63
Ref: Ken Henry Johnsen (Norway)