ON AN evening which reminded us again why there is no great clamour for a return of the Home Internationals on a regular basis, Scotland grittily regained the winning momentum Gordon Strachan desired ahead of the resumption of his squad’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
Scorers: Berra (85)
Substitute Christophe Berra settled a largely forgettable friendly encounter against an obdurate and unadventurous Northern Ireland side, the Ipswich defender claiming his third goal for his country in the 85th minute at an underwhelmed Hampden. Just how valuable it was for Strachan as preparation for Sunday’s Group D meeting with Gibraltar remains to be seen. But his players were worthy of a victory which allowed them to put their defeat to England last time out firmly behind them as they prepare for more significant tasks ahead.
While this was notionally the more difficult of Scotland’s two fixtures at Hampden this week, it was not the most important. It was with that in mind that Strachan indulged in a degree of experimentation with a debut for Bournemouth winger Matt Ritchie and only a second cap for Derby left-back Craig Forsyth. At least five players who would now be firmly regarded as first picks for Strachan began the evening on the subs’ bench – full-backs Alan Hutton and Andrew Robertson, midfielders Scott Brown and James Morrison and forward Steven Naismith.
Brown’s omission from the starting line-up allowed the question of who will be Scotland’s captain on a longer-term basis to be fudged for a little longer. Darren Fletcher, making only his second start under Strachan, proudly wore the armband for his country for the 25th time. He helped drive a dominant start to the contest by the Scots against a Northern Ireland side who also kept some of their more prominent players, including Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty, in reserve ahead of their own Euro qualifier against Finland at the weekend.
Ikechi Anya, who has emerged as one of the most effective and influential performers in Strachan’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, was eager and inventive from the opening moments. The Watford wide man gave Manchester United teenager Paddy McNair a torrid introduction to international football as he made his senior debut for the visitors. Anya linked cleverly with Forsyth down the left to create Scotland’s first opening in the fourth minute, his cutback finding Steven Fletcher whose shot from the corner of the six-yard box was superbly saved by Northern Ireland ‘keeper Michael McGovern who turned the ball over his crossbar.
It was to prove a hugely frustrating 45 minutes for Sunderland striker Fletcher whose ability to get himself into threatening positions was not complemented by a finishing touch. His next opportunity saw him unable to get on the end of Steven Whittaker’s inviting cross from the right. McGovern was called into action again in the ninth minute, the Hamilton Accies’ man getting down smartly to his right to keep out Anya’s well struck effort from the edge of the penalty area.
Northern Ireland were rarely evident as an attacking force but almost profited when Scotland were slow to react to a long ball into the penalty area from Jonny Evans. It was knocked down by Josh Magennis into the path of Oliver Norwood who crashed a volley over Craig Gordon’s crossbar. Scotland were quickly back in the ascendancy but continued to lack precision and composure at the crucial moments. Anya was unfortunate to see one left-foot shot drift narrowly wide after a darting run but he was then wasteful with a much easier chance, shanking an effort wide after good set-up work from James McArthur.
Strachan, busily scribbling notes in the technical area throughout, would have been frustrated at his team’s failure to turn all of their possession into an advantage. That pattern continued right up to the interval when Steven Fletcher was unable to beat McGovern from close range after being played in by Shaun Maloney.
Scotland made three changes at the start of the second half. Gordon, who had barely touched the ball, was replaced in goal by Allan McGregor, Berra took over from Russell Martin in central defence and Steven Naismith came on for Maloney in the playmaking role.
It was Naismith who almost made a quick impact, getting on the end of a terrific cross from the impressive Forsyth and directing a near-post header narrowly over. As is so often the case in these challenge matches, the fluency of the action deteriorated as the evening progressed and further changes were made by both teams. Scotland continued to see most of the ball but found it increasingly difficult to make any telling headway in the attacking third of the pitch.
Strachan responded with a double substitution just after the hour mark, James Morrison replacing McArthur in midfield and Jordan Rhodes taking over striking duties from Steven Fletcher. Ritchie had been unable to get as involved in the action as much as he would have hoped on his maiden appearance and he was perhaps a little over-anxious when, latching onto a Naismith lay-off, he snatched a shot wide from 20 yards. Scotland continued to probe for the elusive breakthrough against opponents who had long since been content to settle for a stalemate.
But O’Neill’s men were denied when Scotland finally broke their resistance with five minutes remaining. Ritchie was able to claim a vital assist from his debut, his corner from the right finding Berra who climbed above Aaron Hughes to direct a downward header beyond McGovern from six yards.
Scotland: Gordon (McGregor 46), Whittaker (Russell 78), Martin (Berra 46), Greer, Forsyth; McArthur (Morrison 62), D.Fletcher; Ritchie, Maloney (Naismith 46), Anya; S.Fletcher (Rhodes 62). Subs not used: Marshall, Brown, May, Robertson, Hutton, Bannan, Reynolds, Forrest.
Northern Ireland: McGovern, McNair, Hughes, Evans (McCullough 81), D.Lafferty; Baird (Hodson 58), Norwood (R.McLaughlin 69); Magennis (McKay 75), Reeves (Davis 69), Dallas; Grigg (McCourt 58). Subs not used: Mannus, C.McLaughlin, K.Lafferty, Brunt, Ward, Cathcart.
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