Scotland don't look gift horse in mouth as heat eases on Steve Clarke - unlikely summer of uncertainty

Conditions were not quite as oppressive as feared. Relief came in other forms too as Scotland fought back after conceding the first goal to ensure a challenging international window did not dip to a new low against Armenia, who finished the game with nine men.

Stuart Armstrong is mobbed by his Scotland team-mates after brilliantly putting his side ahead against Armenia. Picture: AP
Stuart Armstrong is mobbed by his Scotland team-mates after brilliantly putting his side ahead against Armenia. Picture: AP

Who needs enemies when you have Arman and Kamo Hovhannisyan on the same side? A pair of red cards collected by this errant pair in the so-called Pink City helped Scotland on their way.

The first, shown to Arman shortly before half-time, was an arguably game-changing event.

Arman should have been sent off at Hampden last midweek when he hurled a bottle of water towards the near-side assistant referee. The defender got his comeuppance here for an equally senseless act.

He might not have picked up a red card in Scotland but he seems to have acquired mastery of a Glasgow kiss during his brief visit. He planted one in John McGinn’s forehead having just been booked for a terrible lunging challenge on Nathan Patterson. He had to go.

The only surprise was referee Nikola Dabanovic deciding the headbutt was only worth another caution. It was a red card offence all day long. The outcome was the same, nevertheless. He walked off and Armenia’s chances of taking anything from the game went with him.

The hosts were further depleted in the dying moments when Kamo Hovhannisyan was sent off for a high, studs up tackle on Scott McTominay. The damage had already been done by then. Scotland did not look a gift horse in the mouth. They had already taken advantage of their numerical advantage by half-time, when the outstanding Stuart Armstrong scored his second of the evening with some deliciously quick foot movement.

The heat surrounding manager Steve Clarke will relent and rightly so. A win is a win and means Scotland’s international season has ended on a high note in the Caucasus.

McGinn finally got on the scoresheet to put the outcome beyond doubt and the same applies to Che Adams, who scored his first goal in 16 outings to put some real sheen on the scoreline.

These strikes early in the second half also meant Scotland at least end these June fixtures on a goal difference of zero following four fixtures in, admittedly, two different competitions. Nothing, not even this handsome victory on the road, could repair the World Cup heartache inflicted in the first of these outings by Ukraine, who just happen to be Scotland’s next opponents in September.

Scotland 1 Ukraine 3 will remain the only result that matters for many in the Tartan Army while the memory of a 3-0 defeat to Republic of Ireland hasn’t been expunged by an away win, albeit a very welcome one, against a side ranked 92 in the world.

Indeed, this was a long way to come to confirm what we already suspected: Scotland are in dire need of a break. The game was being played at walking pace long before Dabonovic blew his full-time whistle.

Happily, the visitors were in a situation where they were able to dictate the pace by then. Callum McGregor was playing his 63rd match of the season and finished it as captain, after McGinn – who wore the armband in place of the injured Andy Robertson – was replaced midway through the second half in balmy, but not sweltering, Yerevan.

The Armenian capital is further east than Baghdad. Fortunately, Scotland’s Nations League hopes have not now gone south, as looked very possible in the first 45 minutes.

Clarke will recognise that the red mist that descended on Armo Hovhannisyan merits featuring high up in any assessment of a victory that got Scotland back to winning ways in Group B1.

What Hovhannisyan was thinking when he pushed his head into McGinn shortly before half time is hard to fathom. It likely changed the course of the evening, perhaps even Clarke’s reign as Scotland manager.

The visitors had got back on level terms after Armstrong pounced following Adams’ attempted to overhead kick to bury an equaliser after 14 minutes. It still looked far from certain that Scotland would go on to secure the three points.

Clarke’s side seemed decidedly ill at ease against the hosts. Chunky forward Tigran Barseghyan was giving the Scottish defence a torrid time and he embarrassed Grant Hanley on the left before pulling a cross back for Vahan Bichakhchyam to convert, with Scott McTominay guilty of ball watching. There were only six minutes on the clock. It might have been tea-time viewing for those watching at home but it was proving post-watershed content at this point.

Two players in defence were playing out of position and it showed. McTominay was deployed at right centre half again while Jack Hendry was shuffled out to the left. As Clarke gave a broad hint would be the case when stressing on the eve of the game that he would be “true to myself”, he stuck with a back three.

His critics might well have been rubbing their hands as Armenia found they could spear Scotland with the simplest ball over the top. Shortly after being saved by an offside decision that denied Khoren Bayramanyean a goal, the Scots were again ripped open when the same player sent a lofted ball over the backline that left Barseghyan through on goal. Hendry, however, recovered well and dispossessed the striker at the critical moment.

This, after only 19 minutes, was the last of the major scares and Armstrong’s wonderful finish into the corner as he slipped, after a move involving Greg Taylor, McGregor and McGinn, eased fears.

The second half saw two players who perhaps most needed to score do exactly that. McGinn got on the scoresheet five minutes after the interval with a well-controlled strike from the edge of the six-yard box after Patterson’s cross. Armstrong set up Southampton teammate Adams with the goal he craved three minutes later. All's well that ends well? Well, not exactly. But it means a summer of uncertainty regarding the manager's position has been avoided.

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