IF THE football Gods are against you, any match can be lost, said Scotland manager Gordon Strachan before his team faced up to Georgia at Ibrox last night. The corollary of that is if they show you a little kindness, you can win in the fashion that Scotland did to claim a first victory of their Euro 2016 Group D campaign.
Scorer: Scotland - Khubutia o.g. 28
Strachan’s side were eminently worthy winners of a confrontation they dominated practically from start to finish.
Yet, the fact is that for all their countless forward forays and goalmouth activity, the only occasion the ball found its way into the Georgian net was the result of inadvertent contact from centre-back Akaki Khubutia, who in turn was the victim of unconvincing goalkeeping.
This break, midway through the first period, was deserved for the many chances before and after as Strachan’s side sought to find a way through unyielding opponents. That they had to rely on the own goal owed much to sang froid that Steven Naismith has shown for Everton this season deserting him in a darker blue.
However slender the win last night, the fact that Scotland themselves looked assured at the back – save for a shanked shot in the closing minutes from Irakli Dzaria when he had the whole goal to aim at – will ensure they make the trip to Poland for Tuesday’s qualifier feeling content. The job at Ibrox was to get three points on the board.
Ultimately, that was achieved with few hiccups.
Georgian manager Temuri Ketsbaia said he had detected signs of over-confidence among his hosts on his travels across Scotland this week. He might have considered this owed something to do with the under-performing nature of his team. They hadn’t won a competitive game in the past two years. The flip side of that was they had rarely proved pushovers in that time. Their set-up at Ibrox showed precisely why they find themselves in this rut.
It should have also told us what kind of evening lay in store. There was eagerness and endeavour by the crate-load from Strachan’s team, but that was ranged against a team that set out to tame their opponents with a real stubbornness.
That would not have taken Strachan by surprise, just as his starting line-up shocked no-one.
As expected, Darren Fletcher made way for Scott Brown in central midfield from the side that had narrowly lost to Germany last month.
Also predicted was that both forwards Steven Fletcher and Naismith would feature, the latter tucked behind the Sunderland striker. This required Shaun Maloney to be posted on the right. Strachan’s decision to start with the attacker whose game time recently has been limited for Championship Wigan proved a judicious one – even aside from his significant part in the only goal.
More than any other player in dark blue, Maloney succeeded in wriggling his way through massed ranks of white shirts as he set the tone in the early minutes. Then his deftness and balance allowed him to glide past opponents as if they were cones on the training field before being unable to fashion a shooting opportunity.
Such forcing and foraging without the finishing typified Scotland’s efforts in the opening stages.
Players ran into traffic in and around the crowded Georgian penalty box, but couldn’t run on to any balls played across, or into, that area.
Even when Scotland produced a series of corners, the attempts of such as Fletcher and Naismith to stretch out legs and apply the necessary touch, or for Grant Hanley and Russell Martin to crane necks and make contact, proved frustratingly unproductive.
That remained the case for the entire first period, even allowing for the fact that Scotland were able to go into the interval with the lead they craved. In the pantheon of flukey goals, the one that put the home side one-up will demand a high ranking. There seemed neither sufficient power or placement in a low edge of the area drive from Maloney after 28 minutes, that followed one of these corner. Dropping to his left, keeper Giorgi Loria made a meal of pushing the ball out, and in doing so he soon had his chips, the ball coming off the back of defender Khubutia and dribbling back past the Georgian goalie. The PA announcer at Ibrox rushed to acclaim Maloney for the effort but the refusal of Maloney to indulge in any form of celebration before he was buried beneath a pile-up of his ecstatic team-mate told precisely where he thought responsibility for the goal should be directed.
Inevitably, Scotland found greater thrust to drive at the two banks of four – with one of these banks even sometimes five-strong – through being buoyed by this lead.
Naismith, played in on the keeper by the influential Fletcher, was thwarted by a mis-control before a miss-hit from Brown, who slashed wide, brought relief to the Georgians. Fine burrowing down the right from Alan Hutton, another feature of the encounter, appeared to set up the captain for a decisive second.
Although Scotland continued to take the game to their containment-fixated opponents in the second period, dominating in terms of both possession and territory, they were found wanting when it came to capitalising on openings.
That failing might have set up a nervy conclusion but Georgia did not have the wherewithal to cause any real problems.
No. 1, David Marshall
6/10 Very little to do in the first half other than accept the odd passback and move it on. While Georgia were marginally more threatening towards the end, he didn’t have a save to make
No. 2, Alan Hutton
8/10 An energetic, barnstorming performance by the right-back. He had umpteen bursts forward, but the best was a weaving run and low cross that almost led to a goal when Scott Brown’s shot spun wide
No. 3, Andrew Robertson
6/10 If not quite as adventurous as Hutton on the other side, he swung in some searching crosses, one of which led to the opening goal. Also delivered one that Steven Fletcher headed wide
No. 4, Russell Martin
6/10 As comfortable a night as he is likely to have in this qualifying campaign. Apart from the odd clearing header, the Norwich City defender was rarely stretched alongside Grant Hanley in the middle.
No. 5, Grant Hanley
6/10 A strong and passionate presence in the middle, as Gelashvilli found after a heated tete-a-tete. Was stretched only in the later stages, when the defence failed to clear and Dzaria shot wide
No. 6, Shaun Maloney
7/10 He did well to keep down the shot that led to Scotland’s breakthrough. In a busy all-round performance, he got himself into good positions, but was often wayward with his shots
No. 7, James Morrison
7/10 He sprayed some lovely passes, but also put his foot in, most notably with a challenge on Kvirkvelia that earned him a booking. Had a late shot blocked by the goalkeeper
No. 8, Scott Brown
7/10 His usual combative self, winning tackles and using the ball well. “Broonie” was the chant after one particular rampage about the pitch. Sponsors’ pick for man of the match
No. 9, Steven Fletcher
8/10 A class act with a repertoire of flicks and touches that gave Scotland an extra dimension. Great footwork in the box and repeatedly sought to set up team-mates with inventive lay-offs
No. 10, Steven Naismith
7/10 A creative presence behind Steven Fletcher, although he wasn’t quite able to capitalise on his partner’s service. Had a late chance after Fletcher’s backheel, but he pulled it wide
No. 11, Ikechi Anya
6/10 After a relatively quiet first half, he found his feet in the second, on one occasion bursting away with such force that Daushvili had to bring him down. Also had a half-hearted claim for a penalty