GLASGOW (AFP) — Scotland manager Alex McLeish believes his players were robbed of Euro 2008 glory by a wrong decision which led to Italy's injury time winner on Saturday.
After Barry Ferguson had cancelled out Luca Toni's second minute opener the Scots looked the more likely side to score a late winner.
However, Spanish referee Manuel Gonzalez awarded a controversial free-kick near the Scottish corner flag after the regulation 90 minutes had been played - taking his assistant's lead to penalise Alan Hutton for a foul on Giorgio Chiellini, when the foul looked to have been committed by the Italian.
Andrea Pirlo duly swung the ball into the penalty box where Christian Panucci leapt to send a looping header over goalkeeper Craig Gordon to book Italy's and France's places in the finals in Austria and Switzerland next summer.
McLeish made no attempt to hide his disgust at the decision and claimed it was due to the fact World Cup winners Italy are one of the major powers in football.
The Scottish boss said: "We didn't deserve to lose, there's no doubt about that. I'm very disappointed with the decision that led to the second goal.
"It was a poor decision and I can't understand why he gave a free-kick to Italy. I've seen it on the television and it's unbelievable.
"The referee's assistant flagged towards our goal and it seems that when you play one of the big countries they get all the 50:50 decisions.
"You have to be absolutely exceptional to overcome these decisions.
"Sometimes you get a referee who is not fazed by these decisions but today I felt a lot of 50:50s went against us unfairly.
"I think Gonzalez is a top referee, UEFA chose him, and although he did okay a lot of his decisions were unjust.
"To overcome that you have to be brilliant and although we were pretty good we were not brilliant."
Italy had taken an early lead when a quick throw-in caught the Scottish defence dozing, allowing Gianluca Zambrotta time to pick out Antonio Di Natale and his low cross was poked high into the roof of the net from close range by Toni.
However, Scotland roared back and deservedly equalised when Ferguson converted from close range, after Italian goalkeeper had spilled Lee McCulloch's shot in the 64th minute.
Despite then losing to Panucci's injury time goal McLeish was pleased with the performance of his players and says the Scottish international side has a bright future.
He said: "I'm really proud of the players for battling back after the early setback.
"The first goal was very unlike us and caught us cold. It knocked the stuffing out of us and handed Italy a good lift.
"It then took us a wee while to find out feet but we did and we gave as good as we got in the first half.
"I told the boys there was a goal in it for us and after Barry Ferguson's equaliser I thought we were on the verge of qualifying."
McLeish continued: "You hope the education and the experience the players have gained from this campaign enhances the guys in terms of mentality.
"This group of players have years ahead of them and they need to take confidence and belief from their performances in this section.
"They have grown in stature, technical ability and mental toughness so we need to go forward positively."
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