If victory was the ultimate aim, then Billy Stark’s period as interim Scotland manager started in positive fashion last night with a 2-1 victory over Luxembourg.
However, the manner of the win was cause for concern against a side ranked No 144 in the world.
Even a draw had not been an option as the Scots sought to arrest a downward slide in the FIFA rankings where they are now 70th. Scotland came perilously close to losing a two-goal first-half lead given to them by Jordan Rhodes. Indeed, the £8 million Blackburn Rovers striker was only denied a hat-trick by an offside flag.
Rhodes, who has now scored three goals in two international starts, was the one shining light. The Tartan Army sang “Are you watching Craig Levein?” after Rhodes’ 23rd-minute strike put Scotland 2-0 up. Stark, who is on the list of candidates to replace the sacked manager, acknowledged things had got a bit “sticky” in the second half.
After that promising start, during which Rhodes scored twice in the opening 25 minutes, Scotland struggled to pull away from their hosts, who scored just two minutes into the second half and finished the stronger of the two sides.
Confidence has become an issue and this was clear from the way the visitors struggled after Luxembourg cut the deficit to just one goal immediately after the break.
“We won, that is the most important thing,” insisted Stark. “We felt we needed to win the game and we hoped it would be a scintillating performance. We would concede that it was not quite that.
“But, in the first half, we were comfortable and created some chances. At half-time I said to the players that the game could go one of two ways.”
Unfortunately for Scotland, rather than beginning the second half in an authoritative manner and not giving Luxembourg any encouragement, they conceded a goal from a free-kick almost straightaway.
“You have to sometimes credit the opposition,” added Stark. “Luxembourg took great encouragement from that.
“They made life difficult for us. It was a situation where you could not say we were sure we would not lose a goal. I thought the free kick from which the goal came was a bit debatable but that is football.
“We are a bit disappointed we could not build on the half-time lead.”
The introduction of three new caps in the second half didn’t help Scotland’s rhythm. However, there can be no denying that they faded badly against a team of part-time players.
“It is up to others how they judge it,” said Stark. “I don’t think anybody could say we did not deserve to win the game. But certainly the second half was sticky for us.
“We were in a position where we had to defend at times. We had a lot of forward players on. It was not because we were negative. I would not say Luxembourg had a grip on the game but they broke quickly.
“We have made some changes in the second half. That is not an excuse. I thought Charlie Mulgrew was excellent in the first half. He and Darren [Fletcher] had a real grip of things in the centre of midfield.
Stark paid tribute to Rhodes’ “explosive movement” and also saluted the fans who, even after such a dispiriting start to the current World Cup campaign, turned up in good numbers. “The fans could have been forgiven for not turning up tonight the way the results have gone,” he said. “But we would have liked to have played a lot better and gone up to their end in the second half.
“I tried to put a team out to win the game. Ultimately, we have got there. I was hoping we might use everyone in the second half but, because of the way the second half went, it meant we were restricted a wee bit in terms of that.”
On his own long-term managerial ambitions, he said: “It’s not about me. That’s not in my thoughts.
“I am experienced enough to know you never sit back in a game. The defining moment was them getting a dubious free kick. It was a great strike but I accept that people will say we should have handled it better. But I am happy with the result.”