Scotland rally with Slovenia win but still have mountains to climb

Chris Martin fired in the winning goal at Hampden
Martin fired in a late winning goal at Hampden

The most surreal of occasions had the trippiest of finales, an unloved footballer booed on to the field by his own fans, who then becomes a match-winner, who's then compared to such luminaries as Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen and Gary McAllister by his manager in the giddy aftermath.

Chris Martin - from a statuesque figure of derision to a defiant, goal-scoring hero.

From being compared to a plank only a few days before in a game against Canada to parallels with footballing icons in this business of the booing. "Not a bad club to be in," said Gordon Strachan of Martin, the life-saver.

Truly this was Scottish football at its bonkers best.

This was a different Scotland - aggressive, driven, clever, mentally strong to the last kick. They created and they missed and they came again.

After all those opportunities in the opening half - one disallowed, one fizzing past a post, two off the woodwork and one off the line - there was a lull in their play in the second spell, an uncomfortable lowering of their intensity and their threat. At the time, it was easy to believe that their confidence had dipped also.

When you keep banging on the door and it doesn't open for you, there's a frustration and a vulnerability that comes with that. Most of the time, but not all of the time.

They had one chance for Ikechi Anya and it went the way of that other glaring moment that fell to Leigh Griffiths earlier in the game. An opportunity missed.

That was the sixth. Six chances in one match and no goal? Given the black comedy that Scottish football can be you half-expected the night to end with a breakaway for Slovenia and a sucker punch.

For all their negativity, their time-wasting, their play-acting, we have all been down this road before. Scottish dominance followed by Scottish heartbreak. This was a pleasing break from a depressing narrative.

Scotland lifted themselves out of that second half rut where passes went astray, fluency was lost and hope faded.

Strachan brought on Martin and you felt for the guy as he was greeted with jeers, a human symbol of the manager's stubbornness that everybody thought was going to end in stalemate and the extinguishing of the flickering flame of a place in the play-offs.

Chris Martin replaced James Morrison on 82 minutes
There were boos from home fans when Martin replaced James Morrison on 82 minutes

Martin was the unlikeliest Scottish hero since John Smeaton did his stuff at Glasgow Airport.

More predictably, Stuart Armstrong helped create the goal with a coolness and a quality amid the maelstrom. He took responsibility, found his man and put the cherry on top of what was an outstanding debut, a performance that made you marvel at the massive strides he has made under Brendan Rodgers' tutelage.

Armstrong didn't just play extremely well, he looked like he was loving every minute of it. There was a burden of expectation upon him but it was a load he carried as if it were a feather.

Andy Robertson was just as good. Kieran Tierney was strong though playing out of position. Griffiths, even when missing a sitter, was a pest to Slovenia. In 45 minutes he put three attempts on goal. The temptation is to focus on the one he blew, but Griffiths was a nuisance to the visitors all the same.

This Scottish performance was dug out from a very dark place. They knew that there was no World Cup beyond Sunday night if it all went wrong, so they had an edge and a hunger from the first whistle and all the while you wondered where on earth this kind of performance had been for the last two-and-half years.

Throw this at Georgia and Scotland probably win that game and maybe the Euro qualifiers turn out differently. Throw it at Lithuania and they probably win that one, too. You don't get nailed 3-0 by Slovakia if you have this kind of desire.

Stuart Armstrong (right) was one of six Celtic players in the starting line up
The impressive Armstrong (right) was one of six Celtic players in the starting line up

Sunday night was a lift, a reminder that these Scottish players may not be anything special but they're capable of a damn sight more than they have delivered for the longest time.

Is it too little, too late? Almost certainly.

Last week in this space we projected some figures based on what was required to make the play-offs in the last four major championships. We took as our guide the nation that squeezed into the play-offs as eighth seed - the Republic of Ireland in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, Turkey in Euro 2012, Croatia in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and Slovenia in Euro 2016.

Updating those numbers after Sunday and applying them to Scotland, Strachan's team still have mountains to climb, still have a way to go to prove that they can repeat and improve upon on the win against Slovenia. That's what they need to do.

Removing the fodder points against the Maltas and the San Marinos - all points won against the bottom side in each group will be taken away to determine who makes the play-offs - the Republic made it on 12 points.

World Cup qualifying Group F

Not counting the game against Malta at home, in order to match that total Scotland would need two more wins and two more draws from two home games, against England and Slovakia, and two away games, against Lithuania and Slovenia.

To match Turkey and Croatia from the 2012 Euro qualifiers and the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, they would need two wins and a draw from those four fixtures.

Given that third-placed teams made the play-offs for Euro 2016, using that qualifying campaign as an indication of what Scotland now need is far from perfect, but even still, based on Slovenia, the eighth seed in the play-offs, Scotland would need two wins or one win and three draws from those five pivotal games.

The probability is that Scotland need a minimum of seven points from the four games outside of the Malta gimme, possibly need eight points and might even need nine points.

This performance brought some hope, but they're a team that broke out of jail with two minutes to go on Sunday only to find that they were back inside on Monday morning with even greater feats of escapology required to do it all over again.