Pressure mounting on Alex McLeish after Scotland's Haifa horror show
From Scotland’s perspective, the prospect of guaranteeing a play-off spot for the Euro 2020 finals was already incentive enough to try and win Group C1, a task made far more problematic by last night’s dispiriting defeat in Haifa.
But the news that Uefa have decided on a 50 per cent increase in prize money for their new tournament, meaning the Scottish FA will pick up a handy £2 million if Alex McLeish’s squad manage to finish above Israel and Albania in their three-team section, was an added reminder of how much significance it carries. The most precious currency in football, of course, is goals.
How Scotland will get theirs during this inaugural Nations League campaign, and the Euro 2020 qualifiers to follow next year, has dominated much of the debate around them this week.
The furore created by Leigh Griffiths’ decision to withdraw from last night’s assignment, preferring to stay at home and work on his fitness at Celtic, was in all probability out of proportion to the effect it had on McLeish’s planning for the match. The Scotland manager was always likely to keep faith with the team who had kicked off the group with last month’s 2-0 win over Albania at Hampden.
So it proved, with Steven Naismith retaining the main striker’s role in which he had dislodged Griffiths during the previous international break.
The Hearts forward, who made his Scotland debut back in 2007 during McLeish’s first spell in charge of the national team, was as industrious as ever on his 48th appearance for his country and didn’t take long to vindicate his selection.
The 25th minute penalty kick which put Scotland in the driving seat at the Sammy Ofer Stadium might have been of the soft variety, but full credit to Naismith for his movement as he ran onto Andrew Robertson’s pass and his awareness that Israeli defender Dor Peretz had found himself poorly positioned.
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His barge on Naismith was sufficient for Polish referee Daniel Stefanski to point to the spot from where Charlie Mulgrew made a consummate job of slamming home the third goal of his Scotland career.
Israel ‘keeper Ariel Harush had precious little else to concern him in a first half largely dominated by the hosts and which gave both Naismith and Johnny Russell, his chief supporting act up front, minimal opportunity to make an impact.
Allan McGregor was far busier at the other end of the pitch, the Rangers goalkeeper required to maintain the excellent form he has shown since the start of the season for club and country.
On the occasion of his 40th cap, McGregor made fine saves to deny Peretz and the dangerous Munas Dabbur, scorer of a double for Red Bull Salzburg against Celtic last week.
With Ben Sahar also striking the foot of McGregor’s left-hand post, the Scots were extremely fortunate to carry the 1-0 lead into the interval.
Their luck duly ran out when Peretz slotted home Israel’s richly deserved equaliser seven minutes into a second half in which the visitors struggled to deal with significant disruption to their defensive set-up.
With Scott McKenna replacing the injured Mulgrew at the break, the dismissal of John Souttar for his second bookable offence just after the hour provided fresh encouragement for an Israeli side who had the scent of a rare victory in their nostrils. Scotland were under the cosh and should have fallen behind in the 65th minute when Taleb Tawatha contrived to hit the crossbar from inside the six-yard box.
Russell, still awaiting his first international goal, saw his eighth appearance for Scotland come to an end when replaced by James Forrest as McLeish sought to give his team a fresh outlet to relieve the pressure.
But it remained fairly constant until the dam finally burst with 16 minutes left when Kieran Tierney sliced Beram Kayal’s cross into his own net.
McLeish’s final throw of the dice saw Oli McBurnie make his first competitive appearance for Scotland, the Swansea striker taking over from the tiring Naismith.
Callum McGregor missed the best chance of an equaliser in the closing stages as Israel, despite facing ten men, were content to protect their lead and wait for opportunities to catch Scotland on the counter-attack.
It was a painful evening for McLeish who has now lost five of his seven matches since returning for a second stint as manager. Israel have an opportunity to take charge of the group if they can beat Albania in Beersheba on Sunday, increasing the pressure on McLeish ahead of Scotland’s final two fixtures next month.
It remains to be seen whether a fully fit Leigh Griffiths, or anyone else for that matter, can provide the spark so badly needed for the trip to face Albania on 17 November and the potential group decider against Israel at Hampden three days later. No-one at the Scottish FA will be counting on that £2 million bounty from Uefa with any confidence just yet.