This game was a “must-win” for both sides, teetering on the brink of mathematical elimination and also had the additional incentive of co-efficient bragging rights, with 55th-placed Scotland sitting directly above 56th-placed Lithuania. Several of the visitors had a point to prove after stalled careers in Scotland, and the Scottish support made their remembrance of one returnee’s gamesmanship felt with choruses of booing. The Lithuanians have struggled at Hampden in the past, and for all that it was a “must-win” game, they respected the Scots enough to go out with a fairly conservative 4-2-3-1, utilising Tadas Labukas as a lone striker. As Labukas has never scored an international goal for Lithuania in his 12 caps, we can presume he was to be used as a physical presence, to hold the ball up for the slighter Mikoliunas and Sernas. Scotland put out a 4-5-1/4-3-3 that raised some eyebrows: David Goodwillie was deployed as a lone striker after only 14 minutes of international football, while Don Cowie and Barry Bannan made competitive debuts. The teams started out roughly as follows:

Lithuania afford Scotland some respect

Scotland huff and puff…

Lithuania often allowed Scotland on to them, with Bannan as the main creative outlet. James Morrison and Steven Whittaker made several forays down the right flank as Scotland attempted to implement Craig Levein’s passing game. Whittaker, for all his commitment, is not Alan Hutton, and he failed to deliver final balls or make incisive enough runs to trouble the left flank of the Lithuania defence. There was a palpable sense of hesitancy about the Scots,  heavy touches and often a lack of midfield movement that allowed the well-organised Lithuanians to maintain shape. Without creating many chances, Lithuania’s forwards pressed high up the field, and the result was more lofted balls than Levein would probably have liked towards Goodwillie. The two imposing centre halves, Zaliukas and Kijanskis, maintained a good command of the area, allowing Scotland few chances in the first half except from set-pieces and shots from range. The notable exception was when a Naismith knock-down was prodded into the path of an onrushing Don Cowie by Goodwillie, however the Lithuanian centre halves did enough to put off both the tee-up and the shot.

Lithuania’s best chances came from Gary Caldwell errors. First, when his scuffed clearance allowed Radavicius to put a cross in for Labukas, whose header wide was as much change as he would get from Berra all evening. Second, when Caldwell’s wayward lay-off allowed Sembras in down the left-flank. Three-on-one, with the lone Whittaker jockeying well, the defensive midfielder inexplicably failed to pass to two team-mates in yards of space, and a chance went begging as the ball was cleared. This would ultimately lead to Scotland’s penalty, as Goodwillie’s hustle in the left channel lead to the free kick that Labukas inexplicably handled –  his most significant contribution to the game. Fletcher’s resultant miss was the first evidence that he may not have been at 100% for the qualifying matches, but keeper Karcemarskas did guess well and dive early.

Scottish movement the key

Naismith and Bannan as “inverted wingers” were more than willing to drift in-field or even switch flanks, while their opposite numbers Mikoliunas and Radavicius tended to stay right and left respectively. Naismith gave former Hearts winger Cesnauskis – now masquerading as a right-back – some difficulties at the back, while Bannan’s movement meant that Klimavicius was a rare sight in the Scottish half. By contrast Cesnauskis was allowed more freedom by the more attack-minded Naismith, meaning that many of Lithuania’s attacks came down their right side. James Morrisson was the more aggressive attacking players of Scotland’s two central midfielders, but Cowie made several late runs into several good positions. For Lithuania, Sernas played too high and left Semberas and Pilibiatis outnumbered when Bannan dropped deep or Fletcher advanced. Until Labutka was hooked at half-time, Sernas was restricted to one wickedly curving shot all half. Of the two lone strikers, Goodwillie worked the channels and even went out wide, while Labukas was fairly static and ineffective.

This would all come to fruition early in the second half, as Goodwillie chased down a loose ball he had scrapped for on the left flank, and recycled play when he could have let Lithuania have a throw-in. From this moment, Scotland retained play until Naismith scored, which in itself was fine example in attacking movement:

Cesnauskis found wanting again
Inverted wingers reap rewards

Goodwillie (below blue dot) picks up a deflected cross from Bardsley (3). Unwisely, both centre-backs (green dots) press him, and he lays off to Bannan (purple). Cesnauskis (red) has to cover because Kijanskas (grey) jockeys Bannan, unwittingly playing Naismith onside. Goodwillie then bursts into the area, dragging both centre-backs with him. Too late, Kijanskas presses, and Bannan dinks a reverse pass over the back-line. Possibly relaxing due to cover from the retreating Pilibiatis, Cesnauskis displays his lack of defensive savvy by ball-watching, and Naismith rolls off his back at the right time to score.

Same old Scotland…

This was presumably exactly the type of football that Craig Levein wants to see. Unfortunately for him, despite several more decently-crafted chances, Scotland began to revert to type as no more goals materialised. Arvydas Novikovas, on at half time, started providing Lithuania with the movement they needed, while Serna was pushed up front, providing a trickier prospect for Scotland’s centre-backs. With the further addition of top-scorer Tomas Danilevicius, on for a defender, then Ricardas Beniusis for the largely ineffectual (and heavily booed) Saulias Mikoliunas, Lithuania increasingly opted for more direct balls to the large front men, and wing-play largely involving Novikovas.

At this point, Scotland flirted with Levein’s possession-based philosophy, but nerves meant that Caldwell and Berra continuously sat too deep – much to Levein’s audible disapproval – and the team began hurriedly clearing balls up to the front line. In particular, Allan McGregor’s repeated insistence on kicked clearances over short throws meant that there was little respite for the Scotland fans, as the ball kept rapidly returning to Scotland’s final third. Having enjoyed little aerial success all night, Goodwillie looked too tired for that battle later on. Lithuania forged a series of half-chances, and the hosts failed to keep the ball away from their area. When they finally succeeded, an attempt at keep-ball between Dorrans and Naismith resulted in one of them being caught offside at the corner flag – another needless loss of possession – and Levein and the Tartan Army were visibly relieved when the final whistle sounded at last.

Conclusion: a nervy win for a youthful Scotland side – Levein’s much-maligned tactics worked well in the main. On tonight’s evidence, the problems for Scotland do not lie at the front so much as at the back, where nerves, slack passing and rash challenges produced too many goalscoring oppotunities. Better opponents would have punished such mistakes. Barry Bannan was a clear man-of-the-match.

Fun Fact: to add a little perspective, Liechtenstein’s head-to-head record against Lithuania in this campaign was better than Scotland’s, recording a 2-0 aggregate victory against Scotland’s 1-0.

Scotland: Allan McGregor, Steven Whittaker, Phil Bardsley (Stephen Crainey 70′), Christophe Berra, Gary Caldwell, Don Cowie, Darren Fletcher, Barry Bannan (Robert Snodgrass 84′), David Goodwillie, James Morrison (Graham Dorrans 79′), Steven Naismith.

Lithuania: Zydrunas Karcemarskas, Deividas Semberas, Ramunas Radavicius, Tadas Kijanskas (Tomas Danilevicius 61′), Marius Zaliukas, Darvydas Sernas, Saulias Mikoliunas (Ricardas Beniusis 77′), Linas Pilibaitis, Arunas Klimavicius, Deividas Cesnauskis, Tadas Labukas (Arvydas Novikovas 46′).