SUPER-SUB James McArthur swooped late to salvage a draw for Scotland at Hampden last night.
The Crystal Palace midfielder, brought on for skipper Darren Fletcher at half-time, nipped onto a Grant Hanley knock-on to power a header into the Lithuania net.
And that brightened the country’s hopes of reaching the 2018 World Cup which had grown dimmer under the glare of the Hampden floodlights last night after Fiodor Cernych had spun round the hapless Hanley to fire home a second-half score.
Desperate for a victory that would set the country up for Tuesday’s clash with Group F second-favourites Slovakia, Gordon Strachan’s men had a frustrating night of it up until the late strike.
Victory had been expected, if not demanded, ahead of the Slovakia game.
After all, in nine previous meetings with Lithuania, ranked 117th in the world to the hosts 44th, had won five times and lost only once.
As if sensing what might be to come, Scotland started the match in a hurry with Andrew Robertson drawing a near immediate foul out of Cernych deep in Lithuania’s half.
Yet while the ball in from Matt Ritchie was a good one, picking out his Newcastle club-mate Hanley at the back of the area, the big defender was unable to do it justice, with his downward header lacking both direction and power.
Callum Paterson, playing in place of the injured Alan Hutton, did better when Robertson again won a set-piece down the left, this time suffering an elbow in the neck from Egidijus Vaitkunas for his trouble.
Rising high in a packed penalty box, he got a great contact on the ball to flash a headed effort just wide.
Gordon Strachan had warned in the build-up that the opponents were likely to be far from shy when it came to going on the attack themselves and that proved to be the case.
Just a few minutes were on the clock when Arvydas Novikovas, a name which will be familiar to Hearts supporters from his years at Tynecastle in Vladimir Romanov’s time, smashed in a shot which Paterson did well to block.
At the back they did give Scotland cause for optimism with Robert Snodgrass able to carve through their defence when Paterson’s pass wasn’t properly cleared.
The Hull midfielder whipped in an excellent cross to Chris Martin who couldn’t quite manage to wrap his foot around the ball enough to get it on target.
It was fair to say Martin hadn’t been a universally-popular choice to lead the line.
He netted against Malta in the group opener but at club level with Derby and Fulham, where he is on loan, he had gone 20 matches without scoring – a drought that prompted plenty to call for Steven Fletcher or Leigh Griffiths to be used ahead of him.
Here he at least demonstrated why Strachan favours him when more than holding his own as defenders tried to wrestle him off the ball.
His link-up play was decent too, if not as eye-catching as that of Oliver Burke, who had fans on their feet with a delightfully disguised through-ball to Ritchie flicked off the outside of his right boot that just failed to pay off.
As former Scotland manager Alex McLeish, working last night as a television pundit, observed at half-time, the overwhelming feeling was one of frustration.
Still it could have been even worse with Barry Bannan going perilously close to conceding a penalty with a rash challenge in the Scotland area.
The start of the second half brought more of the same with Novikovas exposing Paterson’s defensive vulnerability when rounding the full-back to lash in a low drive that David Marshall had to be sharp to save.
By then James McArthur had been brought into the action as a replacement for Darren Fletcher, with another James, this time Forrest, joining him soon after in a switch for Burke.
Sadly it didn’t have the desired impact. In fact, it was almost immediately followed by Lithuania’s score.
And again it was Scotland’s fragility at the back that was exposed by Cernych, with Hanley so tight he was almost sharing his jersey, taking a pass in at his feet and playing in Vykintas Slivka before spinning by the defender to run onto the return.
One-on-one with David Marshall, he steadied himself before driving a low shot past Marshall into the net.
It looked like being fatal but happily McArthur had other ideas.
Mark McGhee says Scotland have to be ruthless in upcoming qualifiers against Lithuania and Slovakia
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