FIRST the pride, then the fall. They say it is the hope that kills you, but in the case of the national team, an inability to handle the pressure that comes with expectation is fast becoming a fatal flaw.

So it was on Wednesday night when Steve Clarke’s Scotland seemed paralysed by the weight of the occasion, allowing Ukraine to set the terms of engagement and looking a pale imitation of the fluent, slick outfit that had taken Denmark apart at Hampden last November.

If that night had been viewed as a watershed moment for this team, then Wednesday evening was the reality check. And that is now three big games at Hampden - the others against the Czech Republic and Croatia - that have followed the same pattern.

The Scots were outshone in every department apart from between the sticks, where Craig Gordon was the only thing preventing the national side from a thumping, and at the other end, the blundering Georgiy Buschan was the only thing offering any hope of Scottish salvation.

Even then, we couldn’t take advantage, with John McGinn of all people squandering an incredible opportunity to haul Scotland back into the game with half an hour still to play, the ball glancing wide off his famed meatball and just wide of the post.

Had that gone in, and with the Ukrainians visibly tiring by that stage, Scotland may well have turned it around. As it was, Callum McGregor’s goal came a little too late, and the frenetic chasing of the game that followed ultimately failed to bring the bounce of the ball needed to force extra-time. The defeat though, had nothing much to do with ill fortune.

As with the opening game of the European Championships against the Czech Republic, of which this bore eerily depressing echoes, Scotland simply failed to turn up on the big occasion. And as with that game, they were without Kieran Tierney.

The absence of the Arsenal man was no doubt a massive factor in the paucity of both performances. The system was specifically designed after all to accommodate the strengths of both Tierney and Andy Robertson in the side, and without such a pivotal cog, it all fell to pieces.

It isn’t a stretch to say that Tierney is now Scotland’s most important player. He started all of the eight unbeaten matches that led into the Ukraine game, and it is something of an issue that so much now seems to hinge on his presence.

The logic behind including Lyndon Dykes alongside Che Adams up front was sound enough, with the Ukrainians displaying a weakness in defending set-pieces over the past year or so. But in practice - and admittedly, in hindsight – the combination simply didn’t work. Worse, it actually hindered Scotland both defensively and offensively.

Without the energy of Ryan Christie in the first half, the Ukrainians were able to play around the Scotland press – such as it was – with ease. McGinn didn’t know whether to go on and help out his frontmen or not, and when he did, he left gaping spaces in behind. McGregor and Billy Gilmour were then outnumbered, and ultimately, swamped.

Furthermore, though Clarke said this hadn’t been a pre-match instruction, the presence of Dykes invited the easy option of going long to the big man whenever our defenders were in possession, when all of Scotland’s success of late has come from playing through the lines and getting McGregor and Gilmour on the ball.

The selection of Aaron Hickey ahead of the less gifted but ever reliable Stephen O’Donnell was a surprise too given Clarke’s reputation for leaning on players who he knows and trusts, and the youngster struggled on the right.

On the left, captain Robertson looked like a player who had just come off a 60-game season and a defeat in the Champions League Final. And while his commitment to Scotland can’t be questioned, purely from an optics point of view, the few beers he enjoyed as he commiserated in Liverpool on Sunday now will be used as a stick with which to beat him.

It has to be said too that the build-up to the match would hardly have helped. The mental challenge of going into any World Cup play-off match is formidable, but even more so when you are constantly being made to feel like you have to apologise for wanting to win.

The Scotland camp were saying all the right things in the lead up to the game, expressing solidarity with Ukraine while insisting no quarter would be given once the whistle sounded, but even sub-consciously, the weight of being told that the whole world wanted you to lose – and even some of your own countrymen, like legendary former Scotland captain Graeme Souness – may well have had a negative psychological effect.

All-in-all, it was a night to forget for this Scotland team, and this Scotland manager. But acknowledging the mistakes that were made tactically and the shortcomings of the players on the night doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bath water.

This team has come a long way, and they deserve great credit for the progress they have made. Wednesday night showed that they still have a long way to go, but it is the fact we all know they are capable of so much better that makes the defeat sting that little bit more.

Clarke more than deserves the opportunity to continue this largely positive journey he has set this Scotland team on, and while the Nations League matches this month may well have a feel of after the Lord Mayor’s Show about them, they are now crucially important to get this team back on track.

Having had a taste of major tournament football, Scotland cannot afford to go back to the days of lurching from one qualification near-miss to another. The challenge for Clarke and his men is to show they are now at a level where qualification for tournaments on a regular basis is the bare minimum requirement.

There is nothing glorious about failure, but these players cannot be labelled as notorious failures yet, like so many who went before them. If they are to avoid such a fate, they simply cannot allow the European Championships to pass them by.