Scotland have thrived in Euro 2008 qualifying until now as underdog youngsters on the up. But an experimental, juvenile Georgia side – apparently as hungry and certainly younger – beat them at their own game here last night to land a blow to Scotland's dreams of progress from Group B.
Inspired by a prodigious 16-year-old, Levan Kenia, Georgia won this with a goal in each half, first from Levan Mchedlidze, 17 and then David Siradze. Scotland had what looked like a clear shout for a penalty turned down when trailing 1-0. "I'm told by people who've seen replays that it was a stone wall penalty," Alex McLeish, the Scotland coach, said.
But with a fitful display from a makeshift side ravaged by injury and suspension, Scotland did not deserve points. "The guys who've come in have not let us down, but we lacked a bit of quality we've shown in other games," McLeish said.
Even after this latest twist in a remarkable campaign, Scotland still have their destiny in their own hands. A win against Italy at Hampden next month will see them through. "Nobody in Scotland would have predicted, when the draw was made, that we would be in that position," McLeish said, highlighting how far his team have come.
One point against the World Cup winners might even be enough if France, who needed two late goals to beat Lithuania last night, lose their last game in Ukraine. But this win for Georgia has brought home the harsh realities of the toughest group in qualifying all over again. "The Italians have to come to Glasgow and we know we have to win," McLeish said.
Scotland's first thoughts on seeing the Georgian team-sheet must have been gleeful. Klaus Toppmoller started not only with Kenia and Mchedlidze, but also with a goalkeeper, Georgi Makaridze, 17, playing the first competitive match of his professional career, at any level.
Toppmoller had already confirmed he was going to replace Georgi Lomaia with Makaridze, the third-choice custodian at Dinamo Tbilisi, for whom he has never played a first-team game. But actually seeing that trio take their places in the starting line-up must have been a sight for Tartan Army eyes to relish. Surely? Unfortunately not.
With around 2,000 Scottish supporters in attendance at a fevered Boris Paichadze Stadium, the visitors' pre-match mood was buoyant. It took 16 minutes for Georgia to ruin it, Mchedlidze rising without much difficulty to head home Zurab Menteshashvili's corner. But the hosts had threatened to score before then even when Scotland had verve.
McLeish had made an 11th-hour change to his game plan, ditching the idea to bring Christian Dailly in as a holding midfielder and starting with Aston Villa's Shaun Maloney, instead, on the wing. Gary Naysmith's late withdrawal with a hamstring injury meant McLeish was without five first-choice players. Darren Fletcher returned to bolster a midfield missing Scott Brown, Paul Hartley and Lee McCulloch, but the rejig, especially at the back, led to nerves from the off.
Graeme Murty's first touch of the ball was poor and uncertainty crept in from there. Georgia were playing with the unfettered enthusiasm of kids.
Kenia was dynamic and he unsettled Scotland, who failed to test Makaridze in the first half. Kenny Miller's cut-back was out of reach for James McFadden and a later lay-off wrong footed Stephen Pearson. McFadden got no closer than a shot over the bar in the first half.
The Everton forward then claimed a penalty after being bundled over by Zurab Khizanishvili – currently unable to buy a game at Blackburn – but it was not given. Then David Kvirkvelia had a free-kick saved by Craig Gordon before laying on Siradze's goal.
The first half was interrupted when a home supporter ran on the pitch. It took eight policemen the best part of a minute to catch him. The home fans thought it hilarious. Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter, respective heads of Uefa and Fifa – both here to congratulate the Georgian FA for new facilities – will not have been impressed.
Georgia face repercussions, though perhaps not as serious as those ahead for Scotland for different reasons.
Georgia (4-3-1-2): Makaridze (FC Dinamo Tbilisi); Shashiashvili (Sturm Graz), Salukvadze (Rubin Kazan), Khizanishvili (Blackburn), Asatiani (Lokomotiv Moscow); Kvirkvelia (Metalurh Zaporizhya), Menteshashvili (FK Ventspils), Kankava (Schalke 04); Kenia (Schalke 04); Mchedlidze (Empoli), Siradze (SC Paderborn 07). Substitutes used: Kandelaki (Dinamo Tbilisi) for Kenia, 79; Kvakhadze (WIT Georgia Tbilisi) for Mchedlidze; Jakobia (Metalist Kharkiv) for Siradze, 89.
Scotland (4-4-1-1): Gordon (Sunderland); Murty (Reading), Weir (Rangers), McManus (Celtic), Alexander (Burnley); Fletcher (Manchester United), Ferguson (Rangers), Pearson (Derby), Maloney (Aston Villa); McFadden (Everton); Miller (Derby). Substitutes used: Boyd (Rangers) for Miller, 66; Beattie (West Brom) for Pearson, 66.
Referee: K Kircher (Germany).
Scotland must beat Italy next month to ensure qualification for next year's tournament. A draw will be enough if France fail to beat Ukraine.
Remaining fixtures: 17 Nov: Lithuania v Ukraine; Scotland v Italy. 21 Nov: Georgia v Lithuania; Italy v Faroe Is; Ukraine v France.