SCOTLAND manager Gordon Strachan last night hailed his players for showing they could cope with the strain of proving recent signs of progress were more than a flash in the pan.
SCOTLAND 2 - 1 MACEDONIA
Shaun Maloney’s 89th-minute goal earned Scotland a morale-boosting 2-1 win over Macedonia in Skopje, one which also lifted them off the bottom of their World Cup qualifying group.
It was a highly significant result for Strachan who had admitted beforehand the need for another victory after back to back defeats against England and Belgium.
Watford wing-back Ikechi Anya marked his first starting appearance with the goal which put Scotland in front on the hour mark, a lead which was more than justified on the basis of their overall dominance of proceedings.
But Scotland looked as if they would have to settle for a share of the spoils in the Group A clash when Macedonian substitute Jovan Kostovski scored with almost his first touch in the 84th minute. Justice was done, however, when Maloney secured all three points with a stunning free-kick five minutes later.
That gave Strachan his third victory in seven matches as Scotland boss and the hope of some genuine momentum going into next year’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
“I would imagine most of the players felt under a bit of pressure tonight, whether as individuals thinking they must prove themselves, or as a group,” said Strachan afterwards. “So it’s great to come away with a performance like that. It was a terrific performance but it’s just another part of the jigsaw. We are not a great side by any manner of means but we can do terrific things at times.
“I’m extremely happy for the players and I thought they were terrific tonight. A draw would have been hard to take and it was hard to think how you would win a game on a surface like that.
“To win and play football like that was a dream. We didn’t have a failure tonight. We’ll get on the plane [home] very happy. What a wonderful night. Great football, no failures and the fans have enjoyed themselves.
“The first half performance surprised me a bit. I couldn’t imagine the game being played like that. I thought it would be far more scrappy with scrappy goals. It didn’t work that way.
“When you drive to the game you look at the surface and you think a win would be great. How do you win? A couple of breakaways. . . you try your best. But to play like that and to get the win. That was the win and the performance. That was terrific against a side who beat Wales.
“In the first half we were exceptional, in the second half we were good. We expected Macedonia to come back, we expected the manager to say things at half-time and they did that. But we still tried to play. At all times we tried to play.
“We were only allowed to train on half a pitch so we thought ‘well the other half can’t be very good either’. The Uefa observer said the pitch wasn’t good enough to train on. There were a lot of divots put in and sand put on it. The Macedonians tried their best. So to play football like that on a surface like that was a huge bonus.”
Strachan also expressed satisfaction at Anya’s contribution and praised Steven Naismith for stepping in to fill the central striker role.
“I thought Naismith made a big difference to the team,” added Strachan. “He gave us a focal point, that was good. He allowed other players to play.
“Anya gave his man a torrid time but he could only do that if the rest of the players were brave enough on the ball to build a situation where we could get him one-on-one with the full-back. There had to be a lot of passes and a lot of bravery before that. You don’t just give him the ball and hope for the best. You have to build up the play, suck in the back four and then give it to him.”
Match-winner Maloney had been culpable for the loss of possession which led to Macedona’s equaliser and Strachan praised his mental strength afterwards.
“Good players can deal with pressure,” he said. “But that wasn’t a fluke from Shaun. He’s been practising it since I first knew him eight years ago at Celtic.”
Asked if his team could translate their away form into a Hampden victory against Croatia in the final Group A game next month, Strachan joked: “Yeah, but we could fly away somewhere and then fly back for a couple of days.”
Strachan was left bemused by a bizarre incident at the start of the second half when French referee Fredy Fautrel restarted play before Macedonia goalkeeper Tome Pachovski had come onto the pitch. The official stopped play, then ordered another kick-off.
“That was brilliant.” said Strachan. “Then he blew his whistle. There was no reason for him to blow his whistle. You can’t just say to a player ‘Just come on!’
“It’s one of these things we’ll be talking about for a long time. I think the game should have played on. There was absolutely no way he should have stopped the game until the ball had gone out of play. That would be my understanding of the rule.”