Maloney knew strike would go down as an own goal, writes Paul Forsyth
THE pity for Scotland was that they did not get the winner their performance deserved. The decisive moment of last night’s Euro 2016 qualifier at Ibrox was an untidy goal, scored after less than half an hour, but it was still the difference between the sides at the end of a one-sided match.
The detail again: Goalkeeper Giorgi Loria’s superman impression cleared Andy Robertson’s cross only as far as Shaun Maloney, who did well to get his little body over the ball and keep the shot down. When the goalkeeper managed only to parry it against one of his team-mates, it rolled back across the line and into the net.
At least Maloney had the good grace to look sheepish in his celebration. The public announcer gave it to the Wigan Athletic player – kind of – but it belonged entirely to Akaki Khubutia, the luckless defender, who was altogether more clinical than any of his team-mates threatened to be at the other end.
“I just hit it and I knew it came off a few players before it went in,” said Maloney. “I had the feeling right away that it might be taken off me, but it was just a relief for everyone around the ground to get the goal.
“It was a little bit lucky, but no-one is too concerned about how it went in. I wasn’t worried that’s for sure. I am not even sure how I celebrated. I think I just stood there because I wasn’t sure it was mine.
“But no matter how it happened, the goal settled us down, it lifted the pressure and we started to play our best stuff. We should have gone on and scored a few more. If we had gone in 0-0 at half-time we would have been extremely disappointed.”
Gordon Strachan, the manager, said that the first hour was the best he had seen by his team since he took the job early last year. Maloney was similarly impressed with the way Scotland’s front four, of which he was one, passed and combined to create a series of chances that really should have been converted.
“The first half was as well as we have played – and as enjoyable it’s been for a long time,” he said. “There was great movement with players linking up and getting around. We haven’t seen anything like that for a little while. The only disappointment was we didn’t get the second goal. It did feel like we clicked. There was some really good moves.”
With Steven Fletcher bringing Maloney, Ikechi Anya and especially Steven Naismith into play with a range of clever flicks and lay-offs, it was hugely encouraging for the rest of the campaign. On another night, Naismith, the Everton player, will take his chances, and Scotland will win by more.
The relief is that they are able to address that prospect with three points in the bag, despite an unnecessarily panicky conclusion to the match. Georgia had offered little in attack but, as long as there was only a goal in it, the visiting side were just one accurate shot away from stealing a point.
“We felt the pressure in the last 15 minutes or so because we didn’t managed to get that second goal,” said Maloney. “We spoke all week about staying on an even keel, but we all knew how important this was for us, which made it a bit nervy.”
Scotland were feeling the weight of expectation, as they should be in matches like these, but that will be Poland’s burden on Tuesday night. Strachan’s men visit Warsaw, where they won a friendly in March, knowing that even a point will make this a satisfying double-header.
Maloney, who was chosen ahead of Barry Bannan on the right, will be hoping to keep his place in Strachan’s side. With just one defeat in eight matches – against Germany, the world champions – the manager will be reluctant to change a winning formula without good reason.
“It’s a really important game for both sides, but with Poland being at home, the pressure will all be on them,” said Maloney. “We had it tonight but now it’s their turn.
“It’s a great time to be involved with this squad. If we play as well as we did in patches tonight we will have a great chance out there.
“The home games are important, but every game has pressure, at club and international level. The hype is greater when you play with your country though.
“There is not going to be much between ourselves Poland and Ireland, and I don’t think Georgia are out of it either as they will take points off teams.
“So the home games will be vital and dealing with the pressure will be the difference between the sides in this group.”