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GRIFFITHS STRIKES – BUT YET ANOTHER WORLD CUP BID ENDS IN TEARS

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SLOVENIA 2 SCOTLAND 2
LETHAL Leigh Griffiths fired Scotland to within 38 minutes of a World Cup play-off spot – but once again the nation will miss out on the big-time stage.
When the world’s best kick off in Russia next summer, the Scots will be missing for the 20th successive year from a major tournament.
It’s a long time in football’s wilderness, but there was hope in Ljubljana tonight before the Slovenians got back into the contest.
Griffiths demonstrated his maturity and quick thinking in the 32nd minute when he beat world-class keeper Jan Oblak, conceding his first goal at home in the qualifiers.
A diagonal ball into the box from Darren Fletcher was booted hastily into the air by a desperate defender as Barry Bannan attempted to get in on the blindside.
The ball swirled in the air and Griffths kept himself onside as the Slovenian central defenders tried to get out. James McArthur managed to nod the ball back into the danger zone and the Celtic hitman struck with the lightning reflexes of a cobra.
His timing was perfection as he let the ball drop in front of him and he lashed out first-time to thunder an angled drive low past Oblak into the far corner off the inside of the post.
It was the goal of a master craftsman and it threw Scotland yet another World Cup lifeline.
That the way it remained until the 52nd minute when Slovenia clawed their way back into the encounter after two smart substitutions.
Roman Bezjak was one of the players introduced to the action and it didn’t take him long to repay his manager’s faith in him.
Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson, who sent off home skipper Bost Jon Cesar near the end for persistent fouling, awarded a dodgy free-kick after a tackle from Fletcher on an opponent who made the most of the slight coming together.
Josip Ilicic, who had ruled proceedings for most of the evening, swung in a delightful cross and the Scottish defence switched off.
Charlie Mulgrew and Christophe Berra were otherwise engaged as captain Fletcher allowed Bezjak to get in front of him.
The adventurous Slovenian got his head to the cross and managed to nod an effort down and away from the helpless Craig Gordon, who surely expected better protection from the players in front of him.
It didn’t get much better for the Hoops keeper or Scotland 20 minutes later when the same player claimed a second goal.
This time a right-wing corner-kick from Ilicic caused panic in the box and it fell for Bezjak to nonchalantly roll the ball into the corner of Gordon’s net, low to the shotstopper’s left.
The Scots, though, had a magnificent opportunity to draw level only six minutes later, but Fletcher blew the chance big-style.
Griffiths and Kieran Tierney fought for possession on the right before the ball worked its way to the international skipper.
He waited it for the ball to drop to him, but from 10 yards, he waywardly and wastefully blazed an effort high over the bar and into the crowd.
Gordon made two excellent stops before the Scots grabbed a heart-stopping second in the 87th minute to set up yet another dramatic finale.
Fletcher went some way for atoning for his blunder with a defence-shredding ball that dropped for substitute Robert Snodgrass to chest down before thumping a drive over the shoulder of the helpless Oblak.
Could Scotland get another late, late winner? The answer, alas, was not on this occasion.
They tried hard, but even with five minutes of added-on time, there was to be no miraculous comeback.
When the dust cleared on a frantic campaign, it showed the Scots locked with Slovakia on 18 points, but inferior goal difference will mean no participation in Russia next year.
A sad and familiar story. No-one does glorious failure better than Scotland.
TEAM: Gordon; Tierney (sub: S Fletcher 80), Berra, Mulgrew, Robertson; Phillips, McArthur (sub: Snodgrass 79), D Fletcher, Bannan; Martin (sub: Anya 52), Griffiths,
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