Naismith is head man in Scots win
McLeish gives Hearts forward the nod and his faith is rewarded
Scotland’s long weekend of football, which started with Friday frustration and misery against Belgium, ended up with Monday satisfaction and relief against Albania.
Not only did the 2-0 victory last night get the Scots’ Nations League campaign off to a flying start, it also relieved pressure that was starting to build on manager Alex McLeish. There could be no denying they deserved their win. The performance was as good as the result.
Steven Naismith bounced back from missing a sitter in the first half to see his back post header diverted into the net off an Albanian defender just after the break.
And it was the Hearts man who sealed the three points with the second goal.
Naismith said: “Tonight a lot of credit goes to the younger boys who showed character to continue to play with the ball. We looked in control for most of the night.
“It’s still very early. The boys haven’t been together for too long and there will be teething problems but overall we’re happy with the direction we’re moving in.”
Alex McLeish asked for him and his players to be judged when the real ball came out.
The national coach wanted to plead his case when the competitive Uefa Nations League started against Albania at Hampden rather than in friendly football.
Well, the verdict is in after this League C, Group One clash and Scotland have been found guilty of being miles better than they were against Belgium.
McLeish had striker Steven Naismith to thank for this being a much more enjoyable night than the 4-0 friendly hammering at the hands of the World Cup semi-finalists on Friday.
The Hearts striker made the opener – an own goal by Albania’s Berat Xhimshiti two minutes into the second half – and nodded home the second on 68 minutes.
Now McLeish and his men suddenly look in good shape in this convoluted competition as they prepare to travel to Haifa to play Israel on October 11.
The hosts made four changes to the team that started against Belgium.
In came Allan McGregor to replace Craig Gordon in goal, while Stephen O’Donnell was at right-back, and former Dundee United man Johnny Russell and Naismith were up front.
Gordon, Stuart Armstrong and Leigh Griffiths all dropped to the bench, while Ryan Fraser wasn’t listed.
The McGregor-Gordon switch was expected but it was a brave move by McLeish to leave the likes of Armstrong, Griffiths, James Forrest and Robert Snodgrass on the bench.
The Albanians arrived in a wet Glasgow full of confidence, having opened their campaign with a 1-0 win over the Israelis.
The match came alive on three minutes when Russell went on a terrific run up the right and was heading into the box when he was fouled by Elseid Hysaj. The free-kick was taken by McGregor, whose crisp, curling shot was pushed over the bar by keeper Thomas Strakosha.
That meant it was a Scots corner and this time John McGinn took it. The ball rebounded to John Souttar but he couldn’t get his foot around it.
Scotland threatened again on 10 minutes when a 25-yard Charlie Mulgrew free-kick was held by Strakosha at the second attempt.
A crossfield move three minutes later ended when captain Andy Robertson skewed his cross behind.
There was an appeal for a home penalty on 17 minutes when Russell’s volley inside the box hit Xhimshiti but it appeared to strike the Albanian on the body rather than his arm.
Robertson should have shot first time rather than try a cutback after the Scots had nicked possession, then the visitors had a go from distance but Sabien Lilaj’s strike was too high.
It would have been 1-0 to the Scots on 24 minutes but for an incredible miss. McGinn took a free-kick from the left and Mulgrew nodded it down and it bounced back up for Naismith, who was lurking at the back post.
However, the Hearts frontman somehow nodded the ball against the woodwork and it bounced back across goal to safety. The Albanians couldn’t believe their luck.
The home side missed another great chance when Kieran Tierney overlapped Robertson on the left and squared to Naismith, who let the ball run through his legs.
Former Dundee man Kevin McDonald blasted a 25-yarder over on 37 minutes as McLeish’s men searched for the goal their dominance deserved.
They did have the ball in the net via Naismith on 41 minutes after Robertson picked out McGregor, whose ball forward played Naismith offside and it was chalked off.
McGinn, one of the villains from Friday, gave the ball away in the middle of the park to striker Ledian Memushaj but, thankfully, the Albanian missed the target.
The ball reached Naismith 12 yards out and he did superbly to guide his looping header into the net
Armstrong came on at half-time for the Scots, replacing McDonald, and he had a hand in the own goal that broke the deadlock.
Just two minutes after the restart, Armstrong played the ball back to Robertson out on the left and his former Tannadice team-mate sent a beautiful cross to the back post.
Naismith was waiting again – possibly offside – and there was no mistake this time as his header hit defender Xhimshiti and squeezed into the net.
On 53 minutes, Lilaj brought out another fine stop from McGregor as the visitors upped their game. McGregor broke well for Scotland just before the hour but his shot was blocked by Frederic Veseli.
It should have been all square on 66 minutes when Balaj blasted over from two yards out, but instead it was 2-0 to Scotland two minutes later.
McGinn sent a corner over from the left and, with the Albanian defence all at sea, the ball reached Naismith 12 yards out and he did superbly to guide his looping header into the net.
The Scots saw the game out comfortably and you have to say what a difference a few days make – as well as playing a team that is not Belgium! Attendance: 17,455.
Scotland: A McGregor, O’Donnell, Robertson, Souttar, Mulgrew, Tierney, McGinn, McDonald (Armstrong 46), Naismith, C McGregor (McTominay 79), Russell (Griffiths 70). Subs not used: Gordon, Archer, Paterson, Forrest, Snodgrass, Jack, Shinnie.
Albania: Strakosha, Binaku, Hysaj, Veseli (Mihaj 90), Xhimshiti, Memushaj, Ndoj (Manaj 67), Lilaj, Xhaka, Balaj, Gavazaj (Prenga 46). Subs not used: Berisha, Hoxha, Agolli, Basha, Mavraj, Lika, Kace, Guri, Hyka.
Referee: Matej Jug (Slovenia).
Steven Naismith, left, runs to celebrate with former Dundee United duo Johnny Russell and Stuart Armstrong after scoring Scotland’s second goal at Hampden last night.
Steven Naismith’s header is deflected in off Berat Xhimshiti, centre, to give Scotland the lead at Hampden Park.
Former Dundee United frontman Johnny Russell battles with Albania’s Elseid Hysaj.