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
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