EVEN when he uttered the word on Saturday evening, Gordon Strachan’s description of Scotland’s performance as “magnificent” sounded a touch over the top. A couple of hours later, by which time Poland had beaten Germany 2-0, our own national team’s 1-0 win over Georgia had taken on a far more modest demeanour.
Of course, Strachan has been responsible for a significant and apparently sustained upturn in Scotland’s displays since becoming manager, and there were many admirable aspects of this first win in Group D. But the Polish result and Ireland’s 7-0 win over Gibraltar both suggest Scotland will have to maintain a substantial improvement if they are to qualify for their first major finals this century.
That suggestion is no slight on what Strachan has achieved, and, after some of the turgid stuff we have seen in previous managerial reigns, we should continue to enjoy, and be thankful for, what the former Celtic manager has done.
Still, a look at the state of all of the European Championship qualifying groups, not just our own, appears to indicate that we are in a period of levelling-up across the continent. Group A, in which Iceland have six points from two games, is one illustration of that, even if the visit of the Dutch to Reykjavik tomorrow night can be expected to end that 100 per cent record.
“That was a magnificent performance,” Strachan said after an unwitting own goal by Akaki Khubutia had given his team the points. “I didn’t know they could play that kind of free-flowing football with such ease and break down a good defensive side, create so many chances.” The number of players involved in the creation of those chances was particularly encouraging, as Scotland took the game to the Georgians on several fronts. Alan Hutton’s forays down the right stood out, but left-back Andrew Robertson was almost as impressive going forward.
James Morrison was a more than able partner for Scott Brown in central midfield, even outshining the captain at times. Ikechi Anya again personified the optimism that Strachan has built into the squad, and the combined strength and subtlety of Steven Fletcher was too much for the visiting defence to handle.
Those positives outweighed the debit side of the account, but there were still two aspects of the match that might have been more damaging. First, while the creation of “so many chances” was indeed encouraging, failure to convert more than one was a concern.
Second, although the defence emerged with credit, there were a couple of moments when they could have been punished.
Above all, there was the chance that fell to substitute Irakli Dzaria with little more than ten minutes to play. The ball was at his feet on the edge of the box, with neither of Scotland’s centre-halves, Grant Hanley and Russell Martin, close enough to close him down.
At that stage, long after the match should have been killed off by a second goal, an equaliser would have been a cruel blow. Instead, Dzaria dragged his shot wide, and the home team were able to go on and play out the remainder of the game in fairly confident fashion.
That confidence was another positive that should not be overlooked, because so often in the past Scotland have been shaky when holding on to a single goal lead. So shaky, in fact, that at times they have seemed fated to concede an equaliser. They were fortunate not to do so here, but by the same token you could argue that Georgia were lucky not to be 2-0 or 3-0 down by the time Dzaria fluffed his chance.
After the game, Hanley emphasised how important that confidence was – not only against the Georgians, but as a tool to take into tomorrow night’s game in Warsaw.
He said: “It was only 1-0, but I think it was really convincing the way the boys played, with the confidence we had and the way we moved the ball. We’re playing with no fear. [It was a] brilliant three points, especially after the performance in Germany.
“To come back to Scotland and put on a performance which was equally as good and come away with the three points is a great start. To keep a clean sheet with the three points as well is brilliant.”
Hanley did not play in his team’s 1-0 friendly win in the Polish capital back in March, but nor, more significantly, did Robert Lewandowski.
Strachan said at the time he did not see the game as a dress rehearsal for the competitive fixture, and the return of Poland’s best player should give tomorrow night’s match a very different complexion. A draw will be an acceptable outcome, but even after that the pressure will be on to beat the Irish at home.
The fact that five third-placed teams from the nine groups will qualify for the 2016 finals means that on paper it is easier to go through than ever before.
But it is better not to get too fixated on hopes of scraping into third place then qualifying via the play-offs.
It looks like the most plausible route to qualification is to get the better of the head to heads against both Poland and Ireland and go through automatically in second.
Now that really would be a magnificent way to reach our first spot in a finals since 1998.