Nai­smith is head man in Scots win

McLeish gives Hearts for­ward the nod and his faith is re­warded

The Courier & Advertiser (Dundee Edition) - - SPORT - ERIC NI­COL­SON

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).

Pic­ture: SNS Group.

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.

Pic­ture: SNS Group.

Steven Nai­smith’s header is de­flected in off Berat Xhimshiti, cen­tre, to give Scot­land the lead at Ham­p­den Park.

Pic­ture: PA.

For­mer Dundee United front­man Johnny Rus­sell bat­tles with Al­ba­nia’s El­seid Hysaj.

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