Scots to the four to set

McLeish’s men buoyed by goal spree and must now de­feat Is­rael in fi­nal match to se­cure play-off place

The Herald on Sunday - - SPORT - BY MATTHEW LIND­SAY

IT would not be at all un­like Scot­land, given their propen­sity over the years for snatch­ing de­feat and fail­ure from the jaws of vic­tory and glory, to slip up just when it mat­ters most against Is­rael at Ham­p­den this Tues­day evening.

The na­tional team’s fi­nal Group C1 match was al­ways go­ing to be the im­por­tant one in this dou­ble header re­gard­less of what the re­sult against Al­ba­nia in the Loro Borici Sta­dium had been last night. Lose or draw and they will once again come up short.

Nev­er­the­less, Alex McLeish’s men will head into their next fix­ture in buoy­ant mood and with high hopes of get­ting the re­sult they need to se­cure a Euro 2020 play-off place af­ter record­ing an em­phatic win in an awk­ward fix­ture in far from ideal cir­cum­stances.

The build-up to their penul­ti­mate match had been blighted by an un­prece­dented num­ber of call-offs – no fewer than nine play­ers had de­clared them­selves un­avail­able for one rea­son or an­other – and McLeish was forced to re­fute sug­ges­tions that all was not well in the camp as a re­sult.

No­body, though, could ac­cuse any of the play­ers who took to the field in Shkoder of not want­ing to play for ei­ther their man­ager or their coun­try. They ran their hearts out for 90 min­utes and ex­e­cuted the game plan to per­fec­tion. Goals from Ryan Fraser and Steven Fletcher in the first half and a dou­ble from James For­rest in the sec­ond made this a joy­ous night for Scot­land.

Some cyn­ics may quib­ble about the qual­ity of the op­po­si­tion – Chris­tian Panucci’s charges have now not won, or scored, in four out­ings – and no­body should make the mis­take of get­ting car­ried away. Their ri­vals were re­duced to 10 men early on. But the re was cer­tainly much to be op­ti­mistic about. It was not just the win that im­pressed, it was the stylish man­ner in which it was achieved.

McLeish aban­doned the three­man de­fence that had mal­func­tioned so badly in the de­feat by Is­rael in Haifa last month. Cal­lum Pater­son came in at right-back. It was far from ideal given that he has been play­ing in a more ad­vanced role for Cardiff City. But he had ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence there with Hearts. It proved to be the cor­rect de­ci­sion.

Cer­tainly, Scot­land looked far more com­fort­able play­ing in a 4-3-3 for­ma­tion with Cal­lum McGre­gor in the hold­ing role than they had un­der the pre­vi­ous sys­tem.

David Bates, who had been omit­ted from the orig­i­nal squad, made his de­but. Any nerves that the Ham­burg cen­tre half may have been feel­ing would have been eased when he made a well-timed tackle on Grezda, who had out­sprinted McGre­gor down the left flank, and put the ball out for a throw-in. He per­formed ma­turely there­after and helped en­sure his side kept a clean sheet.

Ryan Christie’s ex­cel­lent form for Celtic was re­warded with a start and he jus­ti­fied his in­clu­sion when he set up the open­ing goal in the 14th minute. He did well to win pos­ses­sion on the edge of the Al­ba­nia area and feed Fraser just in front of him. His team-mate showed great com­po­sure to curl a shot be­yond Ber­isha.

It was the Bournemouth winger’s first goal for his coun­try on the oc­ca­sion of his fifth cap. The clin­i­cal way that he buried his chance sug­gests it will not be his last.

Scot­land’s hopes of vic­tory in­creased eight min­utes later when the Al­ba­nia cap­tain Mergim Macraj was red-carded for head-butting Christie off the ball af­ter he had scythed down For­rest with an ap­palling tackle in the cen­tre cir­cle.

Panucci im­me­di­ately took off at­tack­ing mid­fielder Er­gys Kace and put on de­fender Ar­dian Is­ma­jli. But the change made lit­tle dif­fer­ence to the home team. Al­lan McGre­gor was un­trou­bled. The same could not be said of his op­po­site num­ber.

Al­ba­nia found Stu­art Arm­strong, Christie, Fraser and For­rest a hand­ful through­out. Christie and For­rest went close with long-range at­tempts and Fraser forced a save from Ber­isha. The sec­ond goal, when it came, was de­served, even if it was for­tu­itous.

Is­ma­jli tripped Christie as he bore down on goal and Vladislav Bezborodov, the Rus­sian ref­eree, awarded a free-kick. The match of­fi­cial then de­cided Manaj had han­dled shot from Stu­art Arm­strong.

It was a harsh rul­ing, but Fletcher was un­con­cerned. He stepped up to take the penalty and drilled a fine ef­fort into the bot­tom right cor­ner to take his haul of in­ter­na­tional goals into dou­ble fig­ures.

For­rest opened his ac­count for his coun­try in the 55th minute when he got on the end of a de­fence­s­plit­ting through-ball from Cal­lum McGre­gor and beat Ber­isha. He added a splen­did sec­ond 12 min­utes later af­ter good work by Fraser to send the 2000 away sup­port­ers be­hind the goal into party mode.

McLeish put on Scott McTom­i­nay for Arm­strong, Matt Phillips for Fletcher and Johnny Rus­sell for Fraser as his side coasted to a com­fort­able win. Now for Is­rael . . . Al­ba­nia: Ber­isha, Ve­seli, Gjimshiti (Der­maku, 52), Mavraj, Bi­naku, Kace (Is­ma­jli, 28), Xhaka, Me­mushaj, Uzuni, Grezda, Manaj (Balaj, 62). Sub­sti­tutes not used: Kas­trati, Strakosha, Lila, Kaja, Ademi, Vri­oni, Li­laj, Ndoj, Gavazaj.

Scot­land: A McGre­gor, Pater­son, Robert­son, Bates, McKenna, C McGre­gor, For­rest, Arm­strong (McTom­i­nay, 61), Fletcher (Phillips, 68), Christie, Fraser (Rus­sell, 73). Sub­sti­tutes not used: Bain, McDon­ald, Hendry, Shin­nie, Mackay-Steven, McBurnie. Ref­eree: Vladislav Bezborodov (Rus­sia).

James For­rest slides in the first of his two goals as the Celtic man makes

Al­ba­nia cap­tain Mergim Macraj is sent off af­ter head-butting Ryan Christie

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.