Scotland over hurdle of first must-win game

Steven Fletcher looks on as Shaun Maloney's shot strikes Akaki Khubutia of Georgia and spins into the net. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Steven Fletcher looks on as Shaun Maloney's shot strikes Akaki Khubutia of Georgia and spins into the net. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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SCOTLAND did what they were required to do here in a game widely viewed as Gordon Strachan’s first must-win match as manager. It continued the upward curve stretching back 17 months to a fine win in Croatia.

Scotland 1-0 Georgia

Scorer: Scotland: Khubutia (og 28)

Whether the performance deserved to be eulogised quite as exultantly by Strachan afterwards is a moot point. While Scotland always looked in control, there were the inevitable sweaty moments.

Scotland tend not to win matches by more than one goal. Here, their efforts to build on Akaki Khubutia’s own goal after 28 minutes grew ever more laboured until they ceased completely, with substitute Chris Martin sent on solely with the aim to run down the clock. But Strachan knew what was needed from this game. His clenched-fist reaction at the end said it all.

Despite the narrow scoreline, the manager felt that this was a performance of quality.

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In fact, he later rated it as the most pleasing display – certainly in the first hour – he has witnessed in his tenure to date.

“Sometimes when you have to win you don’t play like that. That is what surprised me,” he said. “I have to say, the quality of the play was above what I thought this occasion might need.”

There was certainly a pleasing fluency about much of Scotland’s play. Players were always on hand to take the ball, the full-backs in Alan Hutton and Andy Robertson played as auxiliary wingers and, in Scott Brown, Strachan could rely on a midfield enforcer whose use of the ball was excellent.

In the middle of an admittedly untested defence, Grant Hanley and Russell Martin looked in control. “That is one of the games where, if you make a mistake as a centre-half, you are remembered forever,” noted Strachan afterwards.

“It’s one of those games. And they didn’t put a foot wrong.”

Perhaps the only disappointment was the failure to put the game beyond Georgia, who were stuffy, if limited, opponents. The fault-line running beneath generations of Scotland teams was exposed again as they struggled to score the goals that would have served as a better reflection of the possession statistics.

Strachan opted for an adventurous set-up – Steven Fletcher in the traditional No 9 role, with Steven Naismith running off him, and Ikechi Anya and Shaun Maloney offering support from the flanks.

On paper, it sounds a promising arrangement, particularly given Naismith’s recent spell of productive goal-scoring form for Everton in the English Premier League.

Sadly, however, he did not have on his shooting boots at Ibrox. Fletcher, who, the weekend previously, struck his first goals for Sunderland since last season, could not build on that in Scotland’s dark blue. He has now scored only once in 16 international appearances.

“I picked the team with people who can do things at home,” explained Strachan. “Let’s go and take the game to people. And they [Georgia] are not mugs, let’s get that right.”

The manager noted that it took a late “wonder goal” by Aiden McGeady for Republic of Ireland to earn a win over Georgia last month, although that was, of course, an away assignment.

“We did not have a wonder goal,” added Strachan. “We had a goal that we worked away at, that was a bit scrappy. But we had other moves where you thought it deserved a goal.”

He had a point, no more so than a sumptuous move involving Anya, Fletcher and Naismith. Fletcher back-heeled the ball into Naismith’s path but the Everton striker snatched at the ball and skewed an effort wide of the far post.

Naismith should also have done better with a chance just after the hour following Hutton’s neat lay-off. However, his shot was hit too straight at Giorgi Loria, who saved at his near post.

There were wasteful moments in the first half too. James Morrison volleyed high into the Broomloan Stand after 19 minutes – Scotland’s first effort on goal after some elaborate but unrewarding play skirting the fringe of the box. A more incisive move involving Fletcher and Naismith ended with the latter being unable to dig the ball from out of his feet as he sought to round the goalkeeper. Brown also sent a curling shot just wide from the edge of the box.

Fortunately for the fans’ nerves, what proved the decisive goal was scored reasonably early after the latest in a series of well-struck crosses from the left by Roberson was punched out by the goalkeeper.

The loose ball was picked up by Maloney, whose shot was saved by Loria. Fortune favoured the home side as the ball hit the boot of centre-half Khubutia, and rebounded back into the net. The strike invited fans to savour the prospect of a straightforward victory, perhaps by two, three and maybe even four goals. Scotland’s dominance certainly warranted such thoughts at this time. But, of course, the reality proved somewhat different.

As the game wore on, Scotland seemed to run out of ideas in their bid to extend their lead, an observation that perhaps led to Strachan opting to try to protect the precious lead.

Naismith was replaced by James McArthur in the last ten minutes, moments after Scotland survived their most perilous moment when Georgia substitute Irakli Dzaria dragged a shot wide of the post from the edge of the box.

Martin was also sent on, though only after a delay caused by the fourth official’s board having gone on the blink. The burly striker carried out his instructions by taking the ball down to the corner flag.

It wasn’t how many had expected the game would end given the relentless pressure of earlier. However, Strachan’s thoughts were already turning to Warsaw and the next challenge in the group. Scotland had at least done enough to ensure they remain very much in the running.

Scotland: Marshall, Robertson, Russell Martin, Hanley, Hutton, Maloney, Brown, Anya, Steven Fletcher (Chris Martin 90), Morrison, Naismith (McArthur 80). Subs not used: Gordon, Reynolds, Whittaker, Bannan, Greer, Burke, Darren Fletcher, Dorrans, Gilks, May.

Georgia: Loria, Lobjanidze, Khubutia, Dato Kvirkvelia (Okriashvili 46), Solomon Kvirkvelia, Daushvili, Grigalava, Kazaishvili (Chanturia 80), Kankava, Gelashvili, Papava (Dzaria 70). Subs not used: Kvaskhvadze, Tsintsadze, Ananidze, Migineishvili, Dvalishvili, Ebralidze, Khmaladze, Papunashvili.ekhviashvili.