THIS was an evening of landmark moments for Scotland at Hampden, some of them more enjoyable than others, as they ensured their Euro 2016 qualifying bid remains on course.
Scorers: Scotland - Maloney 18 (pen), 34 (pen) Fletcher 29, 77, 90 Naismith 39; Gibraltar - Casciaro 19
Steven Fletcher became the first player to score a hat-trick for the national team since Colin Stein achieved the feat against Cyprus back in 1969 as Gordon Strachan’s men found their way to an ultimately comprehensive win.
But this latest tussle with one of the minnows of international football was not all plain sailing for the Scots who suffered the indignity of becoming the first team to concede a goal to Uefa newcomers Gibraltar in competitive action.
Lee Casciaro’s 19th minute strike levelled the scores at 1-1 during a period of the contest when Strachan’s unexpected decision to abandon his previously settled tactical set-up looked capable of backfiring badly. But Fletcher’s treble, along with two penalties by Shaun Maloney and a Steven Naismith goal, saw Scotland recover to post their biggest win in a qualifier since beating the Faroe Islands 6-0 nine years ago.
Having hinted earlier in the week that he may only tinker with his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, Strachan instead gave it what amounted to a complete overhaul.
The deployment of just one central defender, Russell Martin, suggested Strachan had completely discounted Gibraltar as an attacking threat, an assumption which was rudely disabused by the visitors’ goal which temporarily stunned Hampden.
Scotland’s early difficulties in the match appeared to be caused by a degree of uncertainty among Strachan’s players as they adapted to their cavalier 3-4-3 formation.
Fletcher might have eased some of the early jitters had he not directed a close-range header from Andrew Robertson’s cross straight into the grasp of Gibraltar goalkeeper Jamie Robba.
But it was anything but a constant rearguard action by the visitors whose high-energy pressing and willingness to try to get the ball forward whenever possible unnerved Scotland.
David Marshall, who may have anticipated one of the least taxing 90 minutes of his career, instead found himself scrambling to prevent Joseph Chipolina giving Gibraltar an eighth-minute lead with a cross-cum-shot from the left.
Scotland were struggling to find any fluency in the opening exchanges, the lack of a discernible pattern to their play underlining the apparent discomfort with the change of system.
Matt Ritchie, who retained his place in the starting line-up after making his debut against Northern Ireland on Wednesday night, tried to lift the tempo when he cut in from the right to create an opening for himself but his tame shot was easily held by Robba.
Scotland’s first penalty claim of the evening was turned down in the 17th minute when Fletcher went down under Ryan Casciaro’s clumsy challenge.
But Finnish referee Mattias Gestranius did point to the spot a minute later, albeit after lengthy consultation with his additional assistant behind the goal, when Maloney was taken out by Robba’s injudicious diving challenge.
Maloney got up to coolly beat Robba, despite the ’keeper diving the correct way, and it seemed Scotland could finally get on with the business of securing their anticipated comfortable victory.
Instead, the Tartan Army had to suffer the agony of watching Gibraltar equalise just a minute later. It was a goal which exposed the minimalist nature of Strachan’s defensive set-up. Adam Priestley’s smart lay-off allowed Aaron Payas to pick out Lee Casciaro’s run into the penalty area, the midfielder beating the advancing Marshall with a fine right-foot finish.
The growing anxiety in Scotland’s play was evidenced by Naismith’s wild attempt to restore their lead three minutes later as he blazed his shot way off target after being set up by Fletcher’s flick on.
But just as real fears of embarrassment for the Scots were starting to surface, Fletcher finally ended his wait for a second goal for his country to put them back in front in the 29th minute. Ikechi Anya, gradually becoming more involved after a subdued start, provided the cross from the left and when Ryan Casciaro failed to clear, Fletcher pounced to loop a header beyond Robba into the corner of the net.
The Sunderland man’s celebration was a combination of joy and relief. The latter emotion was heightened collectively among the home support and players when Scotland made it 3-1 five minutes later with their second penalty of the match.
This was an award of the soft variety, Naismith going down under what appeared minimal, if any, contact by Lee Casciaro. But the referee had no hesitation this time and Maloney stepped up to deliver a near carbon-copy finish from 12 yards.
Scotland at last had some momentum in their work and Fletcher was unlucky to see a clever flicked shot from Ritchie’s cross hit Robba’s left-hand post.
But the fourth goal duly arrived six minutes before the interval. James Morrison’s piercing through ball set Anya free on the left again and his cutback picked out Naismith who drilled a firm first-time shot beyond Robba at the near post.
Recognition that Strachan’s reshaped system had failed to fully meet his expectations, however, came with the introduction of central defender Gordon Greer for Ritchie at the start of the second half as Scotland reverted to the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1.
It remained a largely laboured performance by the hosts, however, as Gibraltar defended with diligence and discipline.
Fletcher contrived to miss a simple chance in the 61st minute, not for the first time in recent Scotland matches inexplicably trying to take the ball on his left foot when a cross by Alan Hutton was begging to be slammed home with his right. Jordan Rhodes replaced Naismith as Strachan freshened up his attack and the Blackburn striker came close when he latched on to a fine pass from fellow sub Barry Bannan and drove a shot narrowly wide.
Scotland had to wait until the 77th minute to add to their tally, Fletcher claiming his second with a close-range header from Rhodes’ perfectly weighted cross from the right.
It set him up for his big moment as the match ticked towards stoppage time, driving home a precise left foot finish after great set-up work by Bannan to secure the hat-trick.
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