Women's World Cup 2015: Scots still face another challenge

By Cheri BurnsBBC Scotland
Scotland lost home and away to Sweden in the World Cup qualifiers.
Scotland lost home and away to Sweden in the World Cup qualifiers.

Scotland's women came within touching distance of automatic qualification for the 2015 World Cup.

But, after being pipped to the post at the last by Sweden, they now face a play-off tussle with the three other best runners-up to decide their fate.

When the road to Canada began almost a year ago, few would have dared to hope for the success that would come the Scots' way. They went toe-to-toe with the fifth best team in the world all through the group stage until the bitter end.

There can be no denying that Anna Signeul has transformed the national side; she has assembled a cohort of players that have matured and grown together into an outfit that, while rising up the rankings to now sit 21 in the world, have struck a balance that allows them to exhibit the work of a well-organised, committed team, while also enabling their key and more creative players to shine.

But, at the beginning of the qualifying pool - having been drawn in Group 4 with Pia Sundhage's Swedes, as well as facing what looked like being tricky ties against Poland and Bosnia and Herzogovina, among others - they were underdogs to seal their place at the biggest tournament of all at the first time of asking.

Add to that the fact that Scotland have never reached a finals, or contested a World Cup play-off, and people would have been forgiven for thinking that history was about to repeat itself.

But, what this team has, and what their head coach has instilled in them, is a positive and attacking style, with a philosophy that displays the will to win every time they set foot on a pitch; never giving up and believing in their cause.

That was evident from the first qualifier, when they travelled to the Faroese capital of Torshavn and signalled their intent by making an example of John Pauli Olsen's side and coming away with a 7-2 victory.

That confident display was to set the tone for the journey ahead, as Signeul's charges went on to record five straight wins - including a 7-0 thrashing of the Bosnians on their own soil - scoring 18 goals and conceding only one.

But, they were well aware of what could prove their undoing; going up against Sundhage's outfit, who were on an impressive unbeaten run of their own and proving well worth their place among the globe's elite nations.

When Sweden travelled to Fir Park for the first encounter between the group's leading contenders, their quality shone through and, although the hosts put on a spirited display for the majority of play, they were powerless to prevent a 3-1 defeat.

Kim Little scores for Scotland
Kim Little opened the scoring as Scotland stormed to a 9-0 qualifying victory over the Faroe Islands

Despite that setback, what was clear from the dogged performances to date was how far this team had come, and the strides being made by the individuals stepping out for them.

From the reliable, experienced figure of skipper and goalkeeper Gemma Fay - who has shepherded a backline that made life difficult for any opposing striker - to the dynamic Hayley Lauder, skilful and creative Kim Little, and the clinical forward presence of Jane Ross, who with 13 strikes is one of the campaign's top scorers - this nation's work was fast making their competitors sit up and take notice.

And it was their resilience that saw them bounce back from the loss to Sweden to go through their next fixtures with vigour, picking up maximum points and getting their reward by making history when they clinched a play-off place with an emphatic 9-0 win over the Faroes.

They remained at the tails of Sweden - themselves yet to put a foot wrong - and set up a deciding clash in Gothenburg, with Signeul's visitors knowing a result that equalled or bettered the 3-1 scoreline their rivals had previously managed over them would see them grab the automatic spot at the death.

Although they could not quite get over the last hurdle, going down 2-0 despite a heartening performance that showed their strength, it brought to an end a period that players and coaches alike can be proud of.

Now Scotland face the play-offs where four teams will battle it out for the final spot among the elite in Canada next summer.

With Italy, Netherlands and Ukraine standing in their way there will be no easy way through, as each of the teams had fruitful campaigns and recorded impressive points tallies.

First up for the Scots, in what could be a two-stage fight to qualify, will be a face-off with either the Italian or Dutch outfit. With both having secured better totals in the group pool Signeul's team know they will have to be at their very best to make it through.

The first of these matches will take place at the end of October and no matter what the outcome, one thing is for certain; this current Scotland crop certainly deserve their place in the history books. Owing to their passion, talent and drive, they are agonisingly close to their biggest achievement yet.

Given their showings so far, who would bet against them making the dream a reality?