Scotland handled the pressure
Given how flat the match ultimately was - the double whammy of sending off and soft penalty extinguished any Albanian hopes before half time - it’s easy to forget how much pressure the Scots faced heading into it.
Defeat for Scotland would have drastically reduced their chances of finishing top, deepening the gloom around the national side, while pressure would only have increased on embattled manager Alex McLeish.
Yet, Scotland held firm in the early stages and took their chance when it came, via the dropped shoulder and curled effort of Ryan Fraser. While looking occasionally fragile down Callum Paterson’s flank, they limited the home side to half chances and showed cool heads despite provocation.
Fans, well versed in misery, may have feared an Albania comeback against the odds, but it never happened. The young Scots (in both age and international experience) dealt with the game maturely and sensibly, When the chance came to finish the tie, they ruthlessly took it.
Israel remains a must-win
Victory in Albania served a couple of purposes. First, it provided Scotland a much-needed confidence boost after the miserable showing in Haifa last time out and second, it ensured Tuesday night’s clash with Israel will be a straight shoot-out for top spot.
Even if Scotland had lost this evening qualification would have been possible, but the permutations would have been far murkier. As it is, Alex McLeish and his team know that three points will guarantee a play-off berth.
Despite the 2-1 defeat to the same opposition in October, Scotland should go into the game as favourites, albeit narrow ones. They haven’t lost a competitive home game since a 3-2 reverse against then-World Champions Germany in 2015 and dealt relatively comfortably with Albania at Hampden. Israel are likely to test a banged-up Scotland side more than 10-man Albania did however, and they provided plenty of uncomfortable moments in their first fixture, so it would be unwise to write them off.
The formation played to the team’s strengths
Had Scotland’s back line not been decimated by call-offs, McLeish may have stuck to the back three he’s preferred since taking over. It’s a formation that’s had some positives - a decent performance against Albania at home being one - but it’s been unclear throughout who it’s supposed to benefit. Scotland’s two best players, left backs Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson, are both played out of position - uncomfortably so - and it’s also shorn Scotland of their wide threats.
Against Albania, McLeish reverted to a 4-1-4-1, with Roberton at left back and Paterson at right back. Meanwhile, James Forrest and in-form Ryan Fraser were deployed to the flanks. It played to the strengths of the squad - square pegs in square holes - and it paid dividends when Fraser cut inside from out wide and slotted Scotland ahead. Forrest’s two well-taken second half goals further cemented the case. Behind the front players, Callum McGregor orchestrated proceedings as he has done for Celtic recently, Ryan Christie buzzed intelligently behind Steven Fletcher and the two young centre halves were rarely troubled. In general, players seemed more assured and more comfortable in their roles. It would serve McLeish well to stick with the formula on Tuesday.
David Bates and Scott McKenna did their cases no harm
The last time David Bates and Scott McKenna appeared on the same pitch, Alloa beat Raith Rovers 1-0 in the Scottish Championship. Not many in Stark’s Park on that January day in 2016 would have wagered on both starting together for the Scotland national team less than three years later.
As such, it’s a credit that they looked largely comfortable together in what could have been an awkward evening. They were aided by the nature of the tie - which was effectively over by half time - but they dealt with the occasional Albanian threat so competently that goalkeeper Allan MacGregor barely had a jot to do.
Bates was a late inclusion to the squad, but he’s had a sterling season in Germany so far. Not only has he forced his way into the Hamburg starting line-up, but the league leaders have kept clean sheets in 8 of the 10 fixtures he’s started. McKenna, meanwhile, has already shown flashes of promise in a Scotland top.
While both have much learning to do - and while tougher challenges await - both have staked a claim in what’s a relatively shallow talent pool.
Winning comfortably is very enjoyable
It’s not often you watch the Scottish national team and smile at the performance. It’s rare to the point of never happening that you leave a game without a list of concerns or grievances. It is, to put it bluntly, a slog watching Scotland play football.
Not this evening. This evening was a rare, wonderful treat. A competitive fixture that threatened misery and delivered optimism in spades, it was a game where everything went right. True, Scotland got some luck - both from the hot-headedness of the Albanians and from the decision-making of the referee - but the young charges cantered through the game in style. Three of the four goals were fantastically taken and there were positives wherever on the pitch you looked.
Enjoy this one, just in case it’s a while before it happens again.