SCOTLAND’S Vauxhall International Challenge Match for the prize of the Qatar Airways Cup was more than a sponsor-tastic mouthful. Last night’s friendly at Easter Road was an occasion that stuck in the throat.
Qatar’s deplorable human rights record, and the oil state’s apparent disregard for the lives of the migrant workers building their 2022 World Cup stadiums, made for an encounter that so many believed should not have been played.
Yet, for a clump of performers in Gordon Strachan’s side, the unwanted international understandably boiled down to a desirable footballing opportunity. The Scotland manager perhaps did not produce the patchwork starting line-up that might have been anticipated. Even when looking to sew up a Euro 2016 qualifying double over the Republic of Ireland in next Saturday’s Dublin confrontation, he knitted together many first picks.
There were players, though, that would be considered in the first change bracket; individuals that Strachan would turn to if some of his mainstays were missing. James Forrest probably would be more than that to a national manager who patently is enthused by his abilities were it not for the Celtic winger’s troubled fitness record.
Ahead of last night, Forrest hadn’t started for the national team since September 2013. In the early stages last night, he pulled the strings against Qatar, relishing a roving commission to commit defenders and zoom past them. Or eliminate them, as Strachan would have it.
With Scotland constantly pushing on to deep-lying opponents, Forrest was given chances aplenty to shows his potency as a backline-stretching attacker. He could yet be an integral figure as Scotland’s Euro 2016 campaign enters the final straight. James McArthur, who has excelled for Crystal Palace in recent months and earned the reward of a full appearance for his country, had a largely efficient evening. He too could also have a part to play in the quest for next summer’s French finals.
It is difficult to see Craig Forsyth and Matt Ritchie, the other fleetingly-glimpsed internationals that Strachan fielded from the start last night, coming into that bracket. That might seem harsh on Ritchie, voted the Championship player of the season by 4-4-2 magazine this season, and the sponsors’ man of the match last night.
Certainly, he was lively and proved a headline-grabber with the match-winning goal in the 40th minute, a pleasing-on-the-eye low blooter to despatch a 20-yard effort right into the corner of the net. The Bournemouth wide man had several similar attempts from balls breaking across the pitch but didn’t appear to be the man with the ability to link play that Strachan favours.
Strachan rang the changes on the hour to introduce Charlie Adam – as well as Leigh Griffiths and Darren Fletcher, with Johnny Russell appearing later – and he, with one glorious pass and one decidedly misplaced pass, showed the two sides of his game that had left him without a cap in the 14 months before last night.
It seems somehow wasteful for Scotland not to make more of his artistry. That they do not is less a comment on the midfielder, though, and more a reflection of the superb contributions from those Strachan has made his regulars in the centre of the park.