After Scotland’s impressive 3-0 dismantling of Lithuania in Vilnius, they needed to follow up with something equally as impressive at Hampden Park against Malta to show that this performance wasn’t a one-off, and that they have what it takes to progress from their group and reach the playoffs.
Goals from Stuart Armstrong, Andy Robertson and James McArthur gave them the win in Lithuania, but it was the manner of the victory which was the most pleasing. The team were able to dominate possession and win it back quickly using a high press once the opposition had the ball.
The fact Malta were yet to get even a point in Group F can add more pressure on a team at the start of a game, but Gordon Strachan’s side were playing considered but direct passes around the pitch which saw them threatening the Malta box regularly in the first ten minutes.
Prior to the game Strachan spoke of its importance and how his side shouldn’t become comfortable and sluggish just because they’re enjoying a lot of possession.
“We have to be patient in the right way,” he told Sky Sports.
“We have to try to find places of weakness, but not too slowly. We know where we want to go, we will get the ball there as quickly as possible then leave it up to good players after that and try not to make it a pedestrian pace.”
Shots from James Forrest and Robertson both led to corners, and Scotland managed to score from the second of them through Hearts centre back Christophe Berra who rose well at the far post to bury Leigh Griffiths’ cross.
Watching Armstrong in this side it seems strange that the 25-year-old only has four caps to his name, but from now on he should be a fixture in their midfield. He was breaking into the box onto a Robertson pass shortly after the goal, firing a vicious shot which unfortunately only hit the outside of the net rather than the inside.
Another player who is yet to reach double figures for caps is 20-year-old Kieran Tierney, but given his versatility and immense quality he could go on to be one of the nation’s most capped players, providing he stays fit and available for selection.
A left-footer playing at right-back, the Manxman can act as an extra midfielder as he cuts inside onto his favoured foot, as well as working the overlap to stretch an opposition defence.
Scotland are blessed in the full back area at the moment, and new Liverpool signing Robertson has impressed in all the games he’s played this season for both club and country.
He was involved in much of his side’s best work agains Malta, linking up with the midfield players down the left and regularly getting into dangerous positions from which he could find team-mates in the opposition box.
Up front, Griffiths buzzed and was a constant threat during the first half, but didn’t look like he quite had the cutting edge required to stick one past Andrew Hogg in the Malta goal.
But, fresh from Strachan’s half-time team talk, Scotland came out with a renewed sense of urgency and more of the quick, direct passing which the manager had spoken about before the game.
One such move saw the ball land at the Celtic striker’s feet following an excellent passing move involving Robertson and Armstrong. James Morrison hit the post, and Griffiths was lurking in the right area and was on hand to tuck away the rebound for a goal, which will be a great tonic for the striker.
The 2-0 win wasn’t the greatest of goal hauls against the group’s bottom side, but it was a solid enough win and one which was very important in the grand scheme of things.
“We could’ve scored more goals tonight but maybe they were a wee bit tired after Friday,” said Strachan after the game.
“That was more than enough tonight. It’s been a good eight days for the players. Twenty-five attempts at goal – that says it all. Forty-eight for the last two games so that’s good enough to win games of football.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position now that we go into the final couple of games still with a chance of getting to the play-offs.”
There will be rocky moments and obstacles along the way — this is international football after all — but this Scotland side look ready for tournament football.
They sit on the same points tally as Slovenia with 14, and are just one point behind Slovakia who lie second in the group. There is still plenty of work to be done, and even a second place finish won’t guarantee World Cup qualification, but this side look to be finding their groove at just the right time.
If they can retain this momentum, and this relatively new group of exciting players can continue to impress, then they could potentially qualify via the play-offs.