A SO-CALLED new Scotland exhibited an old trait of making their supporters suffer before securing an ultimately handsome victory against Malta, who finished the match with nine men.
All’s well that ends well. Such a handsome win means Scotland are on top of Group F after the first round of games. If Gordon Strachan’s side were unfortunate on occasion during their last qualifying campaign, there was enough here to suggest things could be different this time around. This is only the third time since they last reached a major finals, in 1998, that they have won an opening qualifying match.
Scotland were helped by a soft second-half penalty decision by Ukraine referee Yevhen Aranovskly. Compounding Malta’s frustration, defender Jonathan Caruana was also sent off. Robert Snodgrass swept home the penalty to score the second goal of a hat-trick.
Chris Martin and the striker who replaced him, Steven Fletcher, completed the scoring. Scotland could afford to forget a very sticky patch in the first half when Malta created considerable panic and caused a sense of unease to grow within the Tartan Army.
Never mind The Maltese Falcon, a film full of menace and fatalism, this had the potential to be a Tartan noir. Scotland, who went ahead through Snodgrass after ten minutes, were able to hold the lead for fully four minutes.
Malta only scored three goals in their entire last campaign but had struck against Scotland within quarter of an hour of kick-off.
Fireworks lit up the night sky, as if to salute such a special event. Scotland scorned opportunities to re-establish their lead. But helped by a questionable penalty and two red cards for Malta – Luke Gamblin was sent off in time added on for a lunge on Snodgrass – Scotland secured a high-scoring win.
As Strachan, pictured far right, had hinted, his team consisted of a mix of old and new, with two players, Oliver Burke and Callum Paterson, making their competitive debuts. He did, however, spring a surprise in the form of Chris Martin’s selection. The striker, who signed on loan with Fulham from Derby County last week, started Scotland’s last competitive match, against Gibraltar 11 months ago but still had much to do to convince the Tartan Army of his worth.
It was, by Strachan’s standards, an adventurous revamp. Its most intriguing aspect, perhaps, was the full debut handed to Burke. Since Strachan named his original squad just over a fortnight ago
he has become Scotland’s most expensive ever player courtesy of his £13 million move to Red Bull Leipzig.
His explosive start to the game seemed likely only to intensify the hype surrounding him. By winning a corner in the very first minute after a strong run into the box he was doing little to calm the comparisons with Gareth Bale.
Burke was handed a roving role by Strachan, again highlighting just how much hope is being invested in this 19-year-old. Chris Martin was charged with holding up the ball, with Burke and Robert Snodgrass running off the chunky striker.
Few could say the plan failed. Chris Martin scored once and Snodgrass grabbed a hat-trick. But there were plenty of fans appealing for a re-think of tactics at half-time.
Snodgrass had already tried his luck from distance before he edged Scotland ahead with a goal that was either the product of inspiration or sheer good luck, perhaps a bit of both.
Picking up a clearance following a Scotland corner, Snodgrass shifted the ball on to his left foot and swung a shot-cum-cross towards the back post. It soared over goalkeeper Andrew Hogg into the top corner.
But while many were desperate to believe this was a new Scotland, one in which youth blended well with experience, many of the old failings remained, particularly in the centre of defence. This is a well-recognised Achilles’ heel; even limited teams such as Malta enjoy exploiting the weakness.
Their equaliser, while well worked, was a familiar story of Scotland failing to clear their lines. A hopeful penalty appeal by Ryan Sciciuna, who fell theatrically under Andrew Robertson’s challenge, seemed to affect Scotland’s concentration.
Birkirkara’s Sciberras crossed from the right and Alfred Effiong darted in between Russell Martin and Paterson to send a strong header past David Marshall.
Scotland should have re-taken the lead after 25 minutes.
Paterson sought to atone for failing to pick up Effiong at the goal when sending in a cross that begged for Snodgrass, alone in the middle, to head either side of the keeper. Instead he sent the ball straight at Hogg, who blocked on the line.
Scotland endured some narrow escapes themselves; Malta, spurred on by skipper Andre Schembri, sensed the possibility of a famous victory. The visiting fans failed to be appeased by a Chris Martin header that went narrowly wide – a dissatisfied silence greeted the half-time whistle.
But Martin pounced to score a deserved goal eight minutes after half-time. Employed to do the dirty work, his neat finish after Matt Ritchie whipped in an inviting cross meant he secured some favour for himself. But Malta complained bitterly about Scotland playing on while their skipper was lying prone near the halfway line, following a challenge by Grant Hanley.
Their fury intensified when Scotland stretched their lead from the penalty spot after Caruana was judged to have tripped Chris Martin, following another cross from the left by Ritchie.
The decision took everyone in the stadium by surprise, including, it seemed, the Scotland players. Worse was to follow for Malta, who quickly learned Caruana was being red-carded into the bargain.
The defender trudged slowly to the sidelines and it got worse for Malta, when Steven Fletcher, on for Chris Martin, headed past Hogg to make it 4-1 after 70 minutes. The striker then surged forward and rounded the keeper before seeing his shot hit the bar. Snodgrass was on hand to tap in for a hat-trick.