“Making a statement” and “putting it right” were the type of phrases coming out of the Scotland camp after the calamitous Euro 2020 qualifying campaign opener in Kazakhstan.
Frankly, both of those were an impossibility against the lowest-ranked football nation in the world.
Scotland could have gone into Arbroath v Bon Accord territory and still it wouldn’t rinse out the acrid taste of what was served up in Astana.
If ever the cliché a ‘no win game’ was applicable it was for this one. Nobody restores their sporting reputation in Serravalle.
Win it Alex McLeish’s men did, of course (through goals by Kenny McLean and Johnny Russell). Even by Scotland’s standards this would have been a debacle beyond realism.
But this remains a team devoid of confidence and coherence, with a huge question mark over its manager’s future.
Euro 2020 qualifying gets put on hold until the end of the domestic season but nobody in the Tartan Army – or the Scotland squad, you suspect – will be counting down the days.
To no great surprise, there were several changes to the starting line-up – six of them.
In came captain Andy Robertson, Stephen O’Donnell, Ryan Fraser, Callum Paterson, Russell and McLean. Of the half-dozen who made way for them, James Forrest was the eye-catching one given it wasn’t that long ago he was scoring five goals in two games.
Straight from the first whistle the Scots began to camp themselves in the San Marino half. McLean came close to opening the scoring with an 18-yard volley but he only had a minute to wait before he had his goal – a glancing header from a Fraser cross.
Russell nearly scored goal number two on 11 minutes when he took down a long diagonal ball with a sure first touch but his chip over the goalkeeper just drifted over.
It was another ex-Dundee United man who was next to threaten midway through the first half. Stuart Armstrong was put through down the middle on a one v one. The first effort was straight at Elia Benedettini and from the rebound the goalie produced a fine save to tip it round the post.
For all their dominance, the Scots only had a one-goal lead which is a precarious one even against opposition as lowly as San Marino.
There was a reminder of just that on the half-hour mark when on a rare counter-attack, Filippo Berardi picked out Jose Hirsch, who took the ball round Scott Bain but could only find the side-netting from a very tight angle.
San Marino were starting to get bolder and two minutes later Mirko Palazzi tried his luck from 25 yards with a shot that wasn’t as accurate as it was well-struck.
There was an enforced change on 37 minutes when an injured Paterson was replaced up front by Marc McNulty.
Scotland got more and more disjointed as the half had progressed, summed up by a decent enough move that broke down when Robertson over-hit a cross on the overlap just before the break.
Sporadic boos had started by this point among the travelling support and they greeted the half-time whistle.
Whatever was par for this game after 45, 1-0 wasn’t it.
Things didn’t get significantly better after the restart. On 49 minutes Armstrong did the hard bit by driving past his man into the box and then made a mess of a promising position with a heavy touch that took the ball out of play.
Things then nearly got a whole lot worse. Berardi went down in the box with Scott McKenna at the back of him. Thankfully, the Austrian referee didn’t agree with the home players and fans that it was a penalty.
A second substitution came on 57 minutes, with Scott McTominay replacing Callum McGregor.
The first shot of note of the second half – not on target – didn’t come until eight minutes later when the Manchester United man lashed an effort over the bar from the edge of the box.
The last change made by McLeish was Forrest for Armstrong. On 72 minutes it should have been 2-0. Russell cut the ball back for Fraser, whose shot was hit straight at a San Marino defender.
Two minutes later Scotland had the breathing space they needed. Uncharacteristically, the hosts got caught outnumbered at the back and the Scots took full advantage, with a Forrest cross eventually buried by Russell at the back post.
McNulty nearly had a debut goal but got his downward header in front of goal badly wrong and it flew past the post. Then near the end he saw a shot deflected wide. Seldom has a 2-0 away win felt as underwhelming.