For Scotland, this was a desperate way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. A World Cup play-off place firmly in their grasp, there are no excuses or mitigation for what happened here. A night which promised so much ended like so many of the others. In failure.
Pipped for second place by Slovakia on goal difference, the inquest will be long and bruising. Where Scotland are concerned, much of this feels horribly familiar.
A patchy, poor start to the campaign, when they won just four of a possible 12 points, proved ruinous in the end. Many wanted Gordon Strachan gone and, despite winning 14 of the last 18 points and finishing the campaign unbeaten in the final six qualifiers, the Scotland manager is back in an old movie now.
Roman Bezjak celebrates scoring Slovenia’s equaliser as World Cup qualification hopes slipped away from Scotland
Roman Bezja (No 14) rises at the far post to haul Slovenia level and leave Scotland needing to score in order to finish second
Bezjak held his nerve to slot home from eight yards to mean Scotland needed two goals to keep play-off hopes alive
Aston Villa winger Robert Snodgrass set up a frantic finale by hooking in a second for Scotland late on but it was to no avail
Scotland have not played at a major tournament since 1998 and this draw means the wait now extends beyond 20 years
Gordon Strachan commiserates with his players who paid the price for a sluggish performance during the second-half
Scotland’s draw with Slovenia coupled with Slovakia’s win over Malta means they finished agonisingly in third place
MATCH FACTS & MATCH ZONE
SLOVENIA (4-2-3-1): Oblak, Struna (Skubic 46), Mevlja, Cesar, Jokic, Kurtic, Rotman, Ilicic, Repas (Bezjak 46), Matavz (Vetrih 89), Verbic
UNUSED SUBS: Belec, Viler, Sirok, Sporar, Mlinar, Koprivec
BOOKED: Rotman, Cesar, Rotman
SENT OFF: Cesar
GOALS: Bezjak 52, 72
SCOTLAND (4-4-2): Gordon, Berra, Mulgrew, Robertson, Tierney (Snodgrass 80), McArthur (Steven Fletcher 79), Darren Fletcher, Bannan, Martin (Anya 53), Griffiths, Phillips
UNUSED SUBS: Allan McGregor, McGinn, Whittaker, Hanley, Forrest, Cooper, Callum McGregor, Archer
BOOKED: Tierney, Berra, McArthur, Mulgrew
GOALS: Griffiths 32, Snodgrass 88
REFEREE: Johan Eriksson (Sweden)
Leigh Griffiths fires Scotland in front against Slovenia from James McArthur’s header – CLICK HERE for more from our Match Zone
Facing questions over his team selections. Defending himself against accusations of misplaced loyalty following another qualifying campaign which promised much ended the same way as the rest.
In the opening four matches, Leigh Griffiths couldn’t get a start. Slotting the Scots into the lead here in the 32nd minute with his fourth goal in four internationals, the mistakes of that period will form the narrative of the coming days.
There was no lack of fight. But against a burly, no-nonsense Slovenian team, there was a lack of height. A poor second-half display — when home substitute Roman Bezjak emerged from the bench to score twice — proved their undoing in the end. The defending for both goals was regrettable, the hope and optimism created by the Griffiths opener at half-time wiped out 18 minutes from the end.
Robert Snodgrass came off the bench and the Aston Villa loanee granted late hope with a hooked equaliser in the 87th minute, while Slovenia captain Bostjan Cesar marked his 100th cap with a red card. Yet many now view players like Snodgrass as a part of the problem rather than the solution.
Leigh Griffiths celebrates scoring the opener for Scotland as the visitors edged closer to sealing a top-two finish in Group F
The 27-year-old striker allowed the ball to drop over his shoulder before unleashing an unerring drive into the bottom corner
The Scotland players mob Griffiths after his fourth goal of the qualifying campaign settled the nerves in front of their own fans
Scotland faced Slovenia who went into the game having not conceded a goal at home during this qualifying campaign
The travelling Tartan Army show their support by holding up pink sheets of paper in the away section as the players emerged
Darren Fletcher started the game as captain on his 80th appearance for Scotland and he gets up to head the ball clear
Gordon Strachan started with a 4-4-2 formation with his side second in Group F and needing a win to secure play-off place
Griffiths ran onto James McArthur’s header into the box to score with a brilliant finish at the Stozice Stadium on Sunday
Scotland had a nervous, edgy start but grew into the game and took the lead through Griffiths but he then picked up a knock
Slovenia goalkeeper Jan Oblak tries to get down to his left in time but the pace of Griffiths’ shot meant the ball flew past him
The Celtic striker holds his country’s badge on his chest after breaking the deadlock with a pinpoint finish on Sunday
There can be no question that the loss of Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong weakened Scotland. As did a pre-match injury to James Morrison. Yet the return to the old faces of the opening games — forced or circumstantial — saw the Scots end the campaign much as they began it. Failing to win a game there for the taking.
‘What you have to do is analyse,’ said Strachan as he declined to discuss his future. ‘You could say: ‘Och, you don’t use that system!’ But it is only a theory. We don’t know if that means we are going to win.
‘I am the only one that puts the theories into practice. You don’t just know if it would have made a difference if you had played another system or another player. It might have been a lot worse. Nobody will ever know.’
Both Matt Phillips and Snodgrass had chances during the desperate final minutes to snatch it. But the fatalism surrounding Scotland’s national team now feels immovable. The basis of a squad capable of reaching Euro 2020 certainly exists. Whether the current manager merits the opportunity to remain at the helm is the question for the coming days.
Scotland tightened their grip of second place but with Slovakia beating Malta their fate was in the balance at half-time
Tim Matavz and Rajko Rotman tackle Fletcher during the opening period with the Scots going in with their noses in front
West Brom winger Matthew Phillips knocks the ball beyond Bojan Jokic as he looks to cause problems for the home side
The anguish is heightened by the knowledge the Scots scored two goals in a country where England and Slovakia — both of whom finished above them — couldn’t score any.
The feeling Griffiths could have made the difference in those early games is hypothetical. But hard to shift.
James McArthur’s looping header, following a half-baked attempt to clear Darren Fletcher’s cross, allowed Griffiths to creep in behind the Slovenia backline at the back post. Allowing it to bounce once, the Celtic striker brilliantly despatched it low into the far left corner for 1-0. Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak is one of the reasons Slovenia don’t lose many goals. He had no chance with this one.
For Scotland, the goal seemed to change the narrative. At half-time, they held their fate in their hands.
Surviving a spell when Slovenia cut through an unconvincing narrow four-man midfield, the manager’s decision to push Chris Martin into a two-man attack was vindicated.
Nevertheless, managing his country for the last time, Srecko Katanec made some critical decisions at half-time. The biggest was the introduction of striker Bezjak. The No 14 turned the game on its head.
There was a sense of real injustice about the award of a desperately soft free-kick Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson took for ever to give for the 52nd-minute equaliser.
Kieran Tierney was booked in the opening 20 minutes and was test by the trickery of Slovenia forward Benjamin Verbic
Chris Martin competes for the ball against Bostjan Cesar (right) during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier in Ljubljana
Gordon made a fine save from a deflected shot from Bezjak shortly after the substitute drew his side level in the second-half
Slovenian playmaker Josip Ilicic won the award 30 yards from the Scotland goal, collapsing to the deck under minimal attention from Fletcher.
Ilicic pumped the ball towards the back post and, with Craig Gordon rooted to his line, Bezjak crept in to nod the equaliser inside the far post.
Suddenly, Scotland’s energy and zip was gone. The optimism and hope of half-time visibly drained from their limbs. Slovenia, unable to sell out the modestly sized Stozice Stadium, had the bit between their teeth.
There was an inevitability to what came next. The home supporters sensed it. The massed ranks of the Tartan Army, for the first time in the night, fell silent.
The Scots, in their wretched pink away shirts, survived a penalty claim when Kieran Tierney — booked in the fourth minute — slid in and clattered into Bezjak. The striker also produced a twisting, instinctive save from Gordon.
But Gordon could do nothing about Bezjak’s winning strike as poor defending in front of him allowed the hosts to go in front
Bezjak celebrates as Scotland bodies slump to the ground in front of them during a bitterly disappointing second-half
Scotland substitute Ikechi Anya waves his arms outstretched as his country’s World Cup hopes faded fast in Ljubljana
Snodgrass came off the bench to hook in a leveller with two minutes remaining and Cesar’s sending off gave even more hope
Yet the substitute was merely biding his time, the tempo and flow of the game slipping away from the Scots.
Bezjak effectively killed off any realistic hope of the play-offs with the simplest of finishes 18 minutes from time.
Presented with an award for his 100th cap before kick-off, Slovenia captain Cesar preceded two late yellow cards by holding off Christophe Berra from a corner, laying the ball off for Bezjak to roll the ball calmly into the net.
Scotland now had that sinking feeling. Against a Slovenia team which hadn’t lost a goal at home in qualifying they had managed to breach their defence once already. Another two always looked beyond them.
Yet they could have done it.
Fletcher had a marvellous opportunity to make a fight of the final minutes. Unable to wrap his right foot around a Tierney cross, the captain managed to hook a superb chance over the bar from 12 yards.
The equaliser almost added to the final agony. Fletcher’s raking long ball was controlled by Snodgrass, the wide man coming in from the left before hooking the ball into the top corner.
At the final whistle, Strachan put his hand to his head, shellshocked. A succession of pink jerseys slumped to the turf. In the art of finding new and imaginative ways to fail Scotland have become a world-class footballing power.
But Scotland must now turn their attentions to Euro 2020 qualification after suffering that all too familiar feeling on Sunday