Patrik Schick spoiled the return of Scotland to the big stage as Czech Republic seized a 2-0 victory at Hampden Park.
The towering striker found the net with a first-half header and a spectacular effort from long-distance, as Scotland fell short in their first tournament game in 23 years.
Both goals were preventable from a Scotland perspective, with Vladimir Coufal given time to cross for the first and both Jack Hendry and David Marshall culpable in the second.
Tomas Vaclik in the Czech goal also played his part. Multiple blue shirts tried but none could get the better of him.
It heaps pressure on the Scots now heading to Wembley on Friday, needing to raise themselves after a morale-sapping defeat.
The absence of Kieran Tierney caused murmurs of concern, given how well his tandem with Andy Robertson had been working. Liam Cooper, the Leeds captain, started on the left side of defence, while Stuart Armstrong and Ryan Christie were preferred to Callum McGregor and Ché Adams.
The old buzz, the pulse of human life was back in the giant bowl in the southside of Glasgow. The backdrop to Scotland’s qualification to this tournament had been folded-up seats and social media jubilation; mercifully, that appears to have been replaced by the joy and vibrancy of a home support.
Something as routine as the three goalkeepers emerging from the tunnel with Steve Woods, their positional coach, brought the first orchestrated roar.
The pre-match rendition of Yes Sir, I Can Boogie – the song of Andy Considine’s stag do which has become an unofficial Scotland anthem – was one of the most uplifting sights of the last 12 months.
John McGinn was the first to try harness that energy. In his trademark, rambunctious style, the Aston Villa man hustled possession back just inside the Czech penalty area on the right, with Tomas Kalas over to cover in the nick of time.
Czech Republic had been beaten twice by Scotland in the Nations League last year but were not here to be part of a homecoming party. A Schick effort tested Marshall at his near post, which the Derby County stopper was able to repel.
Lyndon Dykes’ first-time shot at the near post, from an expertly-placed Andy Robertson cross, was guided wide but gave enough encouragement that Scotland would fashion chances.
— Ailsa Kane (@ailsakane) June 14, 2021
It was Dykes’ strike partner Ryan Christie who was becoming Scotland’s most prominent attacking outlet. He would drop behind the target man for clearances and throw-ins, trying to pick up flick-ons, but was also identifying pockets of space where he could get on the ball and drive.
One instance, where he masterfully drifted in between two covering Czech defenders, was then blocked off by his own team-mate Stephen O’Donnell cutting across his path.
His movement fashioned Scotland’s best opportunity of the first half, as he found himself with an avenue to run at the Czech defence but instead laid in the overlapping Robertson. The skipper, who was an ever-present danger careering forward on the left, forced Vaclik to smartly tip over.
The Czechs had largely been nullified after that first Schick chance but he was the man to break the deadlock before the interval. A half-cleared corner presented an overload for the visitors on the right, which Vladimir Coufal galloped into and floated onto the head of Schick to steer home.
The goal flattened the optimism somewhat around Hampden, a giant wet blanket on the pot which had been bubbling along nicely. Clarke acted at half-time, replacing Christie with Adams and adding an extra striker into the mix.
Marshall was called into action quickly, denying Schick and then Vladimir Darida, before Jack Hendry rattled the crossbar to reignite Tartan Army spirits.
Vaclik added to his first-half heroics with another remarkable stop, this time springing backward to claw away a mis-hit clearance from Kalas which threatened to loop over him.
While one looping attempt was kept out, another floated painfully in.
Hendry went for goal from 30 yards, saw his shot blocked and break for an instant Czech counter-attack. Spotting Marshall off his line, Schick went for the audacious and beat the Scotland goalkeeper from just inside the hosts’ half.
Errors were becoming more common and frustration from the stands grew. The defence’s inability to deal with Schick was becoming more and more problematic and Marshall, clearly unsettled by the second goal, was distributing erratically.
His opposite numbers was having one of “those” games. While an Armstrong shot was deflected over, Vaclik smothered one attempt by Dykes then took out a telescopic leg to block another.
By the final 10 minutes, the famous Hampden roar had become more sporadic in its outbursts. The Czechs were comfortable and while Scotland probed, the damage was done.
Perhaps it was a harsh lesson; the mistakes which may mean less in qualifying games hurt a lot more when the pressure and expectation is turned up.
Scotland have learned that.