Scotland fight on and dream on after messy Dublin display

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Jon Walters runs off to celebrate his goal for the Republic of Ireland
Jon Walters' scored from an offside position but Ireland were worthy of their lead at that point

You counted them from the first minute of the Euro 2016 qualifier against the Republic of Ireland - the Scotland blunders, the moments of uncertainty, the epidemic of misplaced passes that took hold of Gordon Strachan's team for 45 minutes.

You watched some of it in disbelief and some of it in anger and confusion. Where did this weakness come from? Who stole Scotland's serenity?

Ireland forward Jon Walters brushing past the bag of nerves that was Craig Forsyth. The aimless deliveries from one player and then another. More angst from left-back Forsyth. Further mishaps in possession. From everybody. This was an ailment that spread from back to front, left to right.

In those moments - and they must have been interminable for the massed ranks in the visiting support - you wondered if this was the day that the smiley-happy vibe that has surrounded this Scotland team was going to change to something altogether more serious.

Scotland's remaining Euro 2016 qualifiers
Georgia (a)4 September
Germany (h)7 September
Poland (h)8 October
Gibraltar (a)11 October

Scotland were being bullied and then Scotland were being beaten. The goal when it came told you much about their plight. A corner and a free header for Daryl Murphy. Then a save from David Marshall and a tap-in for Walters.

Where were the Scots? Where was the desire to clear that ball? Lack of hunger is not a charge that is easily levelled at this team, but when Robbie Brady swung in that corner the Scots were passive when the Irish were alert and forceful.

It was painfully easy and it was coming. The Republic are a very average side but even average sides can make it pay when the opposition has a death-wish.

The defending for Walters' goal was wretched. So was the decision to allow it, for the striker was offside when he poked it past Marshall.

Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli shows James McCarthy a yellow card for elbowing Russell Martin in an aerial challenge
Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli shows James McCarthy a yellow card for elbowing Russell Martin in an aerial challenge

If it was a lucky break for Ireland, then they probably warranted it. They set the tempo, inflicted the panic and forced the errors. At the break, Scotland were in disarray. It wasn't meant to be like this.

In the dressing room they woke from their 45-minute nightmare and roused themselves. The decision to play Matt Ritchie ahead of Ikechi Anya was a strange one even before kick-off and with every passing minute of the first half it became stranger still.

Ritchie has had a terrific, and historic, season with Bournemouth, but nothing about his Scotland performances suggested he was a better option than Anya. He has something, no doubt about it. He couldn't have scored 15 goals for his club in the rough-house that is the Championship unless he had quality, but whatever it is he has, it hasn't been visible for Scotland. Not yet.

Selecting him ahead of Anya was a Strachan gamble and a Strachan fail - and it was one he rectified at the break.

Anya played a part in the equaliser. It was almost as if his effervescent personality galvanised Scotland into bettering themselves. It was another moment in the Shaun Maloney playbook and, for Ireland, a flashback to the November meeting between these sides at Celtic Park when the same player with a similar finish sparked familiar feelings of despair in Martin O'Neill's team.

Maloney, like so many around him, toiled at the Aviva. Little went right for him. He tried to play, tried to influence things, but was undone by inaccuracy - his own and those around him. He was a bystander for much of it, but his cameo was special.

Ireland's James McClean and Scotland striker Steven Naismith display the kind of aggression that bubbled away throughout the match
Ireland's James McClean and Scotland striker Steven Naismith display the kind of aggression that bubbled away throughout the match

From Chicago, came some much-needed fire. His interchange with Anya followed by his curling finish - the shot deflecting off John O'Shea en route - happened almost in slow motion right in front of the Tartan Army. Shay Given lost the flight of it.

The twin sights of the ball in his net and the Scotland fans celebrating in front of his nose was a double whammy of misery for the legendary Irish goalkeeper.

The temptation was to blink in disbelief. Nobody could see where a Scottish goal was coming from, but then, nobody in the stadium has the kind of self-belief that Maloney possesses.

The goal was a tad fortunate but for the Scots it was like an oasis of beauty.

When the purists bang on about football being the beautiful game somebody ought to sit them in front of a television and put on the DVD of this attritional, thud-and-blunder occasion.

It was agricultural stuff. Passionate, no question. Intense. But brutal. Oh so brutal, right from the moment James McCarthy stuck the elbow into Russell Martin's face and drew blood.

The Tartan Army in Dublin
The Tartan Army contributed to a noisy atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium

It would be wrong to say that it was all second-rate. Some of what we saw at the Aviva was world class - the stadium architecture, the passion of the Irish anthem, the ear-splitting noise of the magnificent fans, home and away.

And the emotion. That was pretty hot, too.

This was a match that Ireland really needed to win in order to avoid a potentially fatal blow to their qualifying hopes. Their players knew it and played like it. They were aggressive and psyched, as if assistant manager Roy Keane himself had locked them in a room for an hour beforehand and laid it on the line as only he can.

They weren't good enough, that was the bottom line. They allowed Scotland back into it even though Scotland will hardly - you would hope - play as poorly as this again.

You wouldn't quite say that Ireland's chances are now shot; they are severely damaged. They don't look like a team that can haul themselves back into contention in the run-in.

Scotland fight on - and dream on. In the player interviews in the aftermath there was an inescapable sense of relief that they'd managed to dig out a result on a day when they were so far off their best. An error-strewn performance but a sweet point. Maybe a critical one.