The Press and Journal (Inverness, Highlands, and Islands)
LAST SAY ON DAY OF FIRSTS CYPRUS 1 SCOTLAND 2
But Scotland will have to do better than this to qualify through the play-offs
It was a day of firsts in Nicosia for Steve Clarke’s Scotland. The manager celebrated his first away win since taking charge while Ryan Christie opened his account for his country, capping a fine individual display with one of the precious few moments of quality to help settle this Euro 2020 qualifier dead rubber in his side’s favour.
Christie’s sublime finish set Scotland on their way to a moraleboosting away win in Cyprus, with John McGinn’s goal early in the second half proving the winner.
But aside from the two goals it is clear the Scots still have much room for improvement before they play their Nations League semi-final in March next year.
There is one game left for Clarke to run the rule over his side in the shape of tomorrow’s final qualifier against Kazakhstan at Hampden. Another victory would make it three-in-a-row to end a miserable campaign on a bright note.
But make no mistake, Scotland need to be better than they were in Nicosia.
A repeat of the second-half display in particular just will not cut it when the performance and the result really counts in the spring – and Clarke knows it.
He said: “I won’t sit here and say it was a fantastic performance but it was a good one. We needed to win after the run we’ve been on and it sets us up for the Kazakhstan game on Tuesday.
“We have things we can improve on in the team. If you want to be really good and scintillating going forward you have to sacrifice defensively. We’re still a work in progress but I feel we are getting better.
“For me and the squad of players brought out here it was really important to win the game. The proof will be in the pudding in March. We have a four-month break after Tuesday and hopefully everyone will be fit and available.”
Clarke has had little to smile about since succeeding Alex
McLeish but he surely afforded himself a wry grin after just five minutes when Cyprus were denied a good goal.
Striker Georgios Efrem made space for himself just inside the box before firing a shot which struck the crossbar before bouncing down over the line. But the Austrian officials failed to award what looked a clear goal.
Clarke, however, was non-committal.
He said: “I’ve seen the stills but they can be confusing. It is very difficult to say that ball is over the line and if the officials have the same doubt they cannot give the goal. I’m not sure the whole ball is over the line.
To add insult to the Cypriot injury the Scots broke the deadlock seven minutes later with their first sight of goal.
Aston Villa midfielder John McGinn turned his marker before passing the ball out to Ryan Christie.
The Celtic midfielder drove forward and, with no Cypriot defender closing him down, the former Caley Thistle and Aberdeen man had time to look up and pick his spot – which he did brilliantly by curling the ball high past home goalkeeper Urko Pardo to make it 1-0 to the visitors.
It was a sore one for Cyprus, who had been bright in the opening stages. But they continued to ask questions of the Scots defence and it required a fine save from David Marshall to keep out Pieros Sotiriou’s
powerful low shot. That was as close as the home side came to an equaliser in the first half but it did not take them long to restore parity after the interval.
Motherwell defender Declan Gallagher headed a free kick clear but the ball broke to Efrem, who showed technique and power similar to his earlier effort that was not given.
But this time the ball flew past Marshall into the top corner of the Scotland net.
As was the case when the sides last met at Hampden in June, Cyprus were not level for long. In fact it was all-square for just six minutes and it was Scotland who got the important goal to re-establish their lead.
James Forrest created it, teasing and tormenting two Cypriot defenders out wide before a clever pass released Greg Taylor and the left back’s cross into the box was met by McGinn to score with a fine, first-time finish.
From there it was a case of digging in and, while Scotland survived a few late scares, Clarke will not be fooled.
He knows his team can and must improve and added: “It was important to build on the San Marino victory. We always knew it would be difficult as it was also difficult in June.
“We conceded a goal to a wonderful strike but we got our noses back in front with a good goal before showing some resilience to get the result we wanted.”