Scotland did what they tend to do these days. They prevailed. This was not simply a matter of avoiding defeat, however.
While recent results have been wrenched from pragmatic, slightly ugly performances, this was as cavalier – and sometimes as ragged, it must be said – as has been the case under Steve Clarke.
The openness contributed to a game which was also as enjoyable as it’s been during his tenure. The fraught moments meant the joy evident among the Scotland staff at the end contained a measure of relief. Clarke’s side had done it again, sourcing a win in the most economic manner possible – with one shot on target. Ryan Fraser was the match winner on this occasion with a goal after only six minutes.
The second half was useful since it provided Scotland with the conditions that they may well face in their play-off final in Belgrade on 12 November – almost incessant pressure.
Let’s not pretend Scotland did not live dangerously at times. Scotland hung on with a defence that, by the end, included Hibs centre-half Paul Hanlon making his debut at left wingback. West Ham United’s Tomas Soucek produced surely one of the misses of this international break when he lifted the ball over from six yards with seven minutes left.
Over the course of the last seven days, Clarke may well have found a defence he feels he can trust in Belgrade. He would surely find it extremely difficult informing Declan Gallagher he won’t be carrying on in the middle of a three-man defence after the Motherwell defender’s contribution to three successive clean sheets.
He was a one-man blocking machine against Czech Republic. The force of one block tackle he made in the first half produced a satisfying noise that echoed around a deserted Hampden and confirmed his appetite for the fray. Beside him, Andrew Considine continued where he left off against Slovakia.
John McGinn, who took the armband from the suspended Andy Robertson, got in the way of an almost certain goal from Alex Kral midway through the second half.
Clarke has struck upon a potentially potent strike pairing in Lyndon Dykes and Fraser. The latter put Scotland ahead after being fed by Dykes, who has been Clarke’s major success when it comes to sourcing available talent. The Queens Park Rangers striker gave way for Oli McBurnie with 20 minutes left. Injury and illness permitting, Dykes will fill the No 9 jersey in Serbia. McBurnie’s rotten luck in a Scotland shirt continued, meanwhile. A looping shot from the edge of the box struck the same bar that had denied him against Slovakia four nights earlier.
Scotland have now equalled an unbeaten run from over 30 years ago. Clarke himself is a common denominator so he can feel particularly proud at emulating an eight-game unbeaten stretch under Andy Roxburgh between September 1987 and May 1988. Clarke won five of his six caps in that period.
If his Scotland side can extend the current run to nine matches they will be at least a penalty shoot-out away from a major finals.
Easily forgotten amid the nervous excitement ahead of the play-off final with Serbia is what might flow from this victory, which sees Scotland consolidate their place at the top of Group B2. A win in either Tel Aviv or Bratislava next month will secure top place and very likely a play-off berth for the World Cup in Qatar in 2020.
This was a far better match than the previous two against Israel and Slovakia in what has proved a fertile if intense period for Clarke. Five of his starting XI were clocking on for their third game inside seven days, including Stephen O’Donnell. The Motherwell player continues to confound his critics at right wingback and now has 14 caps.
He was heavily involved in the opening stages and might have given his detractors something to beat him with when a loose ball into the middle was picked up by Lukas Masopust, who quickly broke forward. Only a timely interception from Considine, another in this unlikely cast of characters Clarke has assembled to great effect, saved Scotland from going behind early on.
Considine’s covering work was particularly crucial because Scotland went from nearly going one behind to taking the lead two minutes later. O’Donnell played a central part by picking Lukas Provod’s pocket on the right. Dykes took over and threaded a clever ball through to Fraser, who had made a dynamic run through the middle. He in turn slipped the ball past Tomas Vaclik for his second international goal.
Czech Republic were more impressive than either Slovakia or Israel, the two sides Scotland had overcome in their last two outings. This team were also significantly better than the third XI Scotland faced last month following a Covid-19 outbreak in Czech Republic camp. Not a single player from their 2-1 defeat that night made it into the current squad.
The visitors should have earned a draw at least. Matej Vydra was particularly wasteful. He drove past the upright in the first half from six yards after meeting Vladimir Coufal’s cross from the right and he clipped a shop just past five minutes after the re-start.
Scotland may well have enjoyed a more comfortable second half had Fraser not lifted his shot just over the bar when given an opportunity to put the hosts two goals ahead ten minutes before half-time after a sweeping ball through to him from McGinn. It proved a testing night in the end but one that stands Scotland in good stead for Serbia.