GORDON STRACHAN may not get to his bed until the small hours of the morning as Scotland fly home from Skopje through the night but he should not find it difficult to sleep after his side’s showing.
Scorers: Macedonia - Kostovski 83; Scotland - Anya 59, Maloney 88
Referee: F Fautrel (Fra)
It will be a contented slumber for the Scotland manager as his fear of finishing at the bottom of World Cup qualifying Group A significantly diminished with a thoroughly merited victory over Macedonia.
Ikechi Anya’s stunning introduction to international football gathered momentum as he marked his first start for Scotland with the opening goal of a match more entertaining than the desperately poor pitch might have been expected to allow.
As Scotland showed clear signs of the progress Strachan believes he is making, they also had the resilience to shake off the loss of an 84th minute equaliser from Jovan Kostovski to grab a dramatic winner a minute from time through Shaun Maloney’s magnificent free-kick.
Strachan’s hopes of adopting a more progressive and enterprising approach are clearly not aided by the limited options available to him in the striking positions. His latest tinkering with the most advanced roles in his favoured 4-2-3-1 system came partly from choice and partly from necessity. As he had suggested on Monday, he deployed Steven Naismith in the lone striker position, while Anya replaced the suspended Robert Snodgrass in the wide-left attacking midfield berth. On the right, Barry Bannan took over from the injured James Forrest.
Although the substandard playing surface mitigated against any sustained periods of cohesive football, Strachan could take encouragement from the manner in which his team looked to get on the front foot at every opportunity.
As he did after coming on as a substitute for his debut against Belgium on Friday night, Anya provided a tremendous outlet for Scotland with his energy, pace and quick feet. The Watford player’s bright start saw him prove to be an asset at both ends of the pitch, initiating Scotland’s first attack of the night and then moments later getting back to cut out a counter raid led by Daniel Georgievski.
Naismith, who volleyed his first opportunity of the night wide from a difficult position, showed no shortage of willingness to carry out the donkey work inevitably required of a Scotland striker and he was on the receiving end of a painful challenge from Niko Noveski for his troubles in the early stages. The Everton man was quickly back into the fray, starting a decent move which involved Shaun Maloney and Anya before Steven Whittaker was unable to provide a telling cross from the left.
The lack of a decisive or penetrating final ball was the biggest problem for Scotland who were enjoying as big a share of possession as they could hope for in an away fixture. Charlie Mulgrew blazed a shot over from 22 yards when he might have been better served trying to play Naismith in. That was symptomatic of the decision-making which was preventing Scotland from adding a finished product to some admirable labour.
It took 26 minutes for Scotland to engineer a clear sight of goal, but Naismith was unable to get his header from Anya’s cross on target. It was a decent spell from the visitors and from a Bannan corner, Grant Hanley was squeezed out in his attempt to convert with a back-post header.
The clearest opportunity of the first half fell to captain Scott Brown in the 32nd minute. The Celtic midfielder made a tremendous run to get behind the Macedonian defence and race clear onto Naismith’s perfectly weighted through ball. Brown had only Tome Pachovski to beat but, let down by either a shaky first touch or perhaps the bumpy pitch, his shot lacked conviction and was blocked by the goalkeeper.
Pachovski was called into action again when he had to stretch out his left hand to touch a 20 yard shot from Anya behind for a corner.
Macedonia did not pose any real concern to the Scottish defence until a minute before the interval when Alexandar Trajvoksi broke free and set Adis Jahovic clear on the left of the penalty area. Fortunately for Scotland, the striker skewed his shot wide.
Scotland were forced into a change at the start of the second half, Matt Gilks making his competitive debut as he replaced David Marshall in goal. A hip injury had curtailed Marshall’s involvement, but he could at least console himself with having kept a clean sheet during his time on the pitch.
Macedonia made a far more purposeful start to the second half, putting Scotland under some sustained pressure for the first time. But, for all of their increased share of the ball, the home side struggled to carve out any clear cut openings as the Scots defended diligently.
There was a level of composure about the Scotland performance which would have been heartening for Strachan and he was off his seat in the technical area to celebrate with genuine relish when Anya put his team ahead.
It was a terrific counter-attacking goal which saw Bannan show good control and awareness to get over an awkwardly bouncing ball and thread in a fine pass which picked out Anya’s well timed run down the left. This time, there could be no complaints about the end product. Anya raced into the penalty area, steadied himself and drove a low left foot shot beyond Pachovski into the corner of the net.
There was no slowing in Anya’s pace as he continued his run behind the Macedonian goal and across the running track to enjoy his magical moment with the jubilant Tartan Army contingent in a corner of the Philip II Arena.
Despite the pre-match suggestions of an overly physical approach from Macedonia, there had been little hint of anything untoward in that department from the hosts. It was Scotland who picked up the first booking of the night when Mulgrew clattered into Ivan Trichkovski. The score was quickly evened up when Ostoja Stjepanovic was cautioned for a reckless foul on Maloney.
As the Scots looked to see out victory, Steven Whittaker was then booked for time-wasting and will now be suepnded for the final game of the group against Croatia at Hampden next month.
Gilks made a couple of fine saves as Macedonia cranked up the pressure in the closing stages, first keeping out Mirko Ivanovski’s sweetly struck shot and then touching over a powerful strike from Jahovic.
But the Blackpool goalkeeper was left helpless when the hosts equalised with six minutes remaining. It was a sickener for the Scots, who concentration levels dipped when Maloney was caught in possession. Macedona seized the chance, substitute Kostovski racing onto a cute Goran Pandev pass and getting the break of the ball to force it beyond Gilks from close range.
But Maloney made amends for his part in the concession of that goal when he brilliantly restored Scotland’s lead in the 89th minute. When substitute James McArthur earned a free-kick around 22 yards out, Maloney stepped up to curl the ball over the defensive wall and beyond Pachovski’s right hand into the roof of the net.
Macedonia: Pachovski, Georgievski, Shikov, Noveski, Ristovski; Stjepanovic, Babunski (Tasevski 42); Trichkovski, Pandev, Trajkovski (M.Ivanovski 57); Jahovic (Kostovski 83). Subs not used: Naumovski, Tofilovski, D.Ivanovski, Grncharov, Rangjelovic, Mojsov, Gligorov, Lazevski.
Scotland: Marshall (Gilks 46), Hutton, Hanley, Martin, Whittaker (Wallace 80); Brown, Mulgrew; Bannan (McArthur 78), Maloney, Anya; Naismith. Subs not used: Conway, Mackie, Griffiths, Bryson, McCormack, Samson, Thomson, Greer.
HOW THEY RATED
• David Marshall
The Cardiff keeper lasted just 45 minutes before a hip problem forced him off. Barely troubled when he was on the pitch, though. 5/10
• Alan Hutton
The Aston Villa full-back bombed forward in the first half but found himself having to defend with more caution after the break. 6
• Russell Martin
Lucky Macedonia didn’t level when he lost Ivan Trickovski with 20 minutes left. Sub keeper Matt Gilks saved him but he was out of position again for the equaliser. 5
• Grant Hanley
The central defender looked shaky against Belgium on Friday but he coped with a bobbly pitch and opposition striker Adis Jahovic well. 6
• Steven Whittaker
The right-sided Norwich full-back never looks too comfortable playing on the left but he did an adequate job this time. Booked for time-wasting. 6
• Scott Brown
The skipper should have put his side ahead when through on Tome Pacovski after half an hour but shot straight at the keeper. Kept Pandev quiet for much of the time. 7
• Charlie Mulgrew
The Celtic utility man was given another run in midfield and added steel where needed in the middle of the park. Booked for robust tackle on Ivan Trickovski. 6
• Barry Bannan
The new Crystal Palace signing had not played a minute of action this season but looked fit and determined. Set up Ikechi Anya for the opener. 7
• Shaun Maloney
His stunning free-kick lifted Scotland off the bottom of Group A. Did not see as much of the ball as he would have liked but goal was a just reward for a tireless shift. 7
• Ikechi Anya
The Watford man gave a hint of his talents against Belgium. His first start was even more impressive as he first tormented Macedonian right-back Daniel Georgievski before netting his first international goal. 9
• Steven Naismith
Brought in from the cold to lead the line, he performed the solo “Kenny Miller role” with aplomb. Harried the defence and did well to set up Brown in the first half. 8
• Matt Gilks
Made three great stops to deny Trickovski, Mirko Ivanovski and Jahovic but wasfinally beaten from close range by Kostovski. 7
• James McArthur
His mazy run set up the late free-kick chance which brought Maloney’s winner. 4
• Lee Wallace
Thrown on for last ten minutes and came close to grabbing a late third goal to seal the win. 3