FOR all that theirs was the more sophisticated football, there was a genuine fear that Scotland had come up against an immovable force in Martin O’Neill’s team. It required a moment of inspiration by Shaun Maloney, who, 30 years to the night after Kenny Dalglish’s famous strike against Spain, conjured up a sumptuous curling shot that deserved its place in the pantheon of great Scottish goals.
It is possibly stretching it too much to say that Gordon Strachan had sent his side out for the second half at Scotland – sorry, Celtic – Park last night with the mission to save their qualifying campaign. It might also risk exaggeration to say substitute Chris Martin’s unfortunate miss threatened to haunt the Scottish psyche like a number of others from over the years we could mention.
However, there was certainly reason to worry. For all their possession, Scotland had been unable to score the goal their efforts deserved.
There was some uneasiness, too, at the news from Tbilisi before kick-off, where Poland had ran up a convincing victory over Georgia.
While this engrossing spectacle was unfolding, Germany were cantering to the expected win over Gibraltar. Scotland were in desperate need of something to avoid seeing a gap open up between them and the top three. Maloney supplied it after 75 minutes, moving to the right after collecting the ball from Scott Brown and putting just the right amount of curl on the ball for it to swerve into the bottom left-hand corner of David Forde’s goal.
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Scotland are now handily placed on seven points from four matches and have reason to have a skip in their step against England at the same venue on Tuesday. The hard work had already been completed for this international year.
This was not a night for trepidation. Tackles needed to be full-blooded. Andy Robertson set the tone in the opening minutes of the first half by emerging with the ball from two 50-50 challenges. But against a team displaying just as much endeavour, whether or not they could secure something of worth was likely to hinge on taking one of the few chances that were created.
The last time O’Neill rubbed shoulders with Strachan they were in a television studio together in Rio de Janeiro. Actually, according to Strachan, they were more often in each other’s rooms sharing chat about music and film having dropped the young ones off at the nightclub.
It was strange, then, to see them in opposition, and stranger still to see O’Neill turn right towards the away dugout when he emerged from the tunnel. They have long since shaken the sand from Copacabana beach from between their toes. Here they were trying to outwit each other.
Both teams contained surprises; O’Neill decided against playing his captain Robbie Keane, just as Strachan has been doing in the case of Darren Fletcher, although the Scotland skipper did appear as a late substitute.
Strachan was forced to leave out James Morrison after the player fell ill on the day of the game. Given how the game started, it was easy to wonder whether this was no bad thing since everything Strachan had predicted pre-match about a British-style derby game was being borne out.
Aiden McGeady ensured he received an even louder chorus of boos when he earned the second booking of the night for a poor foul on Steven Fletcher. Grant Hanley had already collected a yellow card for a possibly cruder challenge on Shane Long. It was one of those evenings. It’s hard to fathom how it ended 11 v 11.
If it is possible for a game to settle into a frantic pace, then this one did. It rarely let up. Morrison, one of Scotland’s most artful performers, might not have flourished in a middle cast into shadow by the hulking figures of Jeff Hendrick and Darron Gibson.
While burly, both can clearly play as well – Hendrick has been one of Derby’s most influential players this season, and Gibson tends to improve the Everton midfield when he plays. Charlie Mulgrew replaced Morrison and was a match for them physically – he could also rely on feeling at home in a midfield holding role where his partner was Celtic team-mate Scott Brown. Mulgrew deserved his man of the match award after emerging as the key player in this area of the park.
Even Ireland’s wingers, in McGeady and James McClean, are physically impressive specimens, certainly compared to Scotland’s more flighty pair of Maloney, the match winner, and Ikechi Anya. Talent triumphed over brawn, mercifully.
O’Neill used to sigh as Celtic manager when he was asked yet another question about the number of 6ft plus players in his team. However, he has clearly not lost his preference for a physically forceful team.
Ireland were quick to deliver the ball from back to front; Scotland, by contrast, were attempting to play the better football.
One move involving Steven Fletcher and the excellent Steven Naismith sent ripples of appreciation around the ground. Frustratingly, an end product proved elusive until Maloney made another significant intervention, one so much easier on the eye than the scuffed shot turned into the net by an unfortunate Georgian defender last month. Not that they can be separated in terms of their worth to Scotland.
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