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After half an hour’s play at Lithuania’s LFF Stadium you knew that this was going to be one of those rare Scotland nights when the smelling salts would not be required.
There would be no chasing the game like mad dogs in a meat house, no frenzied search for a late goal to avert a horror show, no metaphorical defibrillator needed like those games at Hampden against Lithuania,Slovenia and England where everybody left the stadium feeling like they’d spent 90 minutes on fast spin in a tumble dryer.
Save for an early tremor brought on by a wayward James McArthur pass and an easy chance coughed up Arvydas Novikovas, this was cigar time for Scotland. Two goals to the good after 30 minutes? Three goals ahead after 72 minutes? It could have been four, five or six out there. In Vilnius, Scotland finally practised the art of the ruthless kill.
In his post-match press conference, Gordon Strachan must have used the word ‘energy’ at least half a dozen times – and it was an appropriate word. Scotland had energy in Andy Robertson on one side and Kieran Tierney on the other. They had it in Stuart Armstrong and Matt Phillips. They had it in Scott Brown and Leigh Griffiths.
As they motored on to victory the thought continually struck about where this form was earlier in the group, where was this maturity? Scotland’s football was good on Friday but it was their attitude that stood out. From the first minute they got on the front foot, took control and carried themselves like men who knew they were going to win as opposed to sitting back, fretfully, and waiting to draw or lose, as they have done too often.
Where was this performance before? We might as well ask where were these players? From the dreadful 1-1 draw against Lithuania in October, Robertson was the only survivor. Ten changes in 11 months. Brown was in retirement back then. Tierney was an unused substitute. Armstrong hadn’t yet started to light up Celtic’s team. Griffiths wasn’t yet trusted.
Griffiths had scored 48 goals in 63 games leading up to the Lithuania tie in Glasgow, but only appeared for the last 19 minutes of that match. It might seem churlish to hark back to that game after just watching an altogether better version of it on Friday, but the Octoberfest of disappointment is still hugely relevant. It still hangs in the air above Gordon Strachan’s head.
He has a good set of players, a group that are beginning to gain confidence and momentum after defeating Slovenia, almost defeating England and hammering Lithuania. They’ll beat Malta comfortably on Monday night, but the truly hard work only comes after that. They have to beat Slovakia at Hampden in October and then have to go to Slovenia and win there as well.
The memory of the 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Slovakia earlier in the campaign is still vivid. Robert Mak, Marek Hamsik and Adam Nemec ran amok that night. It’s why most would give Scotland only a modest chance of beating them and Slovenia, thereby completing this comeback from the near-dead to take second place in the group and with it a possible spot in the play-offs.
You can have 4-1 with the bookmakers if you think they can do it. The odds layers won’t be expecting to get knocked over by the rush of punters lumping on Scotland’s Houdini act.
That match in Trnava last October is an unreliable guide, though. Yes, Slovakia are a good side and many of the same players will turn out for them again at Hampden next month. Scotland’s side has completely changed since then, though. There’s not a lot of point in looking at the 3-0 last year and applying a huge relevance to it now because only one or two players of the Scotland team in Trnava are going to be playing in the return match in Glasgow.
Back then it was David Marshall in goal and a defence of Callum Paterson, Russell Martin, Grant Hanley and Tierney. All things being equal, only Tierney will start next month.
The midfield in the 3-0 loss was Barry Bannan, Darren Fletcher, James McArthur, Robert Snodgrass and Matt Ritchie. McArthur is the only one of those who started in Vilnius. Steven Fletcher was the lone striker in Trnava. Griffiths is the man now.
Scotland are improving, no question, but the failures of earlier in the campaign have given this new team no room for error. They handled the pressure in Vilnius, but Slovakia are an infinitely better side than Lithuania and Slovenia, on their own ground in Ljubljana, are formidable. They’ve already beaten Slovakia there in this group and they held England to a 0-0 draw.
Strachan really could have done with Slovakia dropping points against Slovenia on Friday night. They didn’t – and they remain strong favourites to make the play-offs. If Scotland are going to change that, they have to win their next three games.
While Scotland are playing Malta on Monday, England will be hosting Slovakia. A Slovakia win – they only lost to England to a 95th minute goal in their first meeting in the group – makes it virtually impossible for Scotland to make the play-offs. As much as it might stick in the craw of the Tartan Army, every last one of them should want England to win that game.
Friday night was positive in many different ways, but in their bid to make the play-offs Scotland are still climbing a footballing Everest.
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