It’s been a stipulation in recent years that games between these countries finish 2-1 to the team in dark blue. The previous four meetings were settled by this scoreline but Scotland broke with convention to record an accomplished three-goal victory at a sold-out Hampden to set up a battle royale against Spain on Tuesday.
They have not enjoyed a win of any kind at the start of a European Championship qualifying campaign since the afternoon a Robbie Williams concert ejected Scotland from their own stadium. Walter Smith's side beat the Faroe Isles 6-0 at Parkhead on that occasion in 2006. This time Scotland were the hottest ticket in town. They enjoyed top billing and did what the top acts do by building towards a crescendo. Two late goals from Scott McTominay lent the result a very acceptable sheen after Scotland had laboured slightly following John McGinn’s opener on 21 minutes.
The Aston Villa midfielder was seen sharing a hug with Ally McCoist, working at the game as a pundit, at the side of the pitch afterwards and no wonder. Included in the half-time quiz was this question: who had struck most goals for Scotland – McCoist or Kenny Miller? It is closer than you might think but McCoist is in front with 19 goals to Miller’s 18. McGinn is hunting them both down. He is now at 16. Remarkably, they have all been scored since Clarke took charge.
The latest was typically opportunist from McGinn as he popped up at the back post to put Scotland ahead after fine play on the left between Kieran Tierney, Stuart Armstrong and skipper Andy Robertson. Armstrong’s part in the goal was pivotal as he played in Robertson with a cute ball. The Liverpool left back enjoyed some fortune when his cross was deflected into McGinn’s path. The midfielder made no mistake although there was some anxiety as the VAR team deliberated over a possible offside call against Robertson.
The goal was declared valid and Hampden settled back in expectation of a relaxing afternoon. Scotland appeared to lapse into this mindset too. A long shot from skipper Kostakis Artymatas that almost caught out debutant ‘keeper Angus Gunn should have served as a warning but Clarke was still concerned enough to deliver an admonishment at half time. “Maybe you think it is too easy,” he told his players. “But it’s not. The scoreline says it’s not.”
He also advised Gunn to check his studs during the interval. The Norwich City ‘keeper made an assured debut if we forget a heart-in-mouth moment when he slipped on a spot of lush Hampden turf and almost presented Cyprus with an open goal. Ironically, given assistant manager John Carver’s complaints about the national sports centre at Oriam, several players lost their footing throughout the afternoon although there's not much anyone can do about torrential overnight rain. “The surface was fine,” said Clarke afterwards. “It was a wet day in Glasgow!”
Temuri Ketsbaia made a point of stressing on the eve of the tie that such Scottish conditions were his preferred conditions in which to play football. The former Dundee midfielder had noted the large puddles that had formed in the Hampden car park prior to the Cyprus squad’s pre-match training session.
The Cyprus manager’s players did not seem quite so enamoured with the climate although St Mirren defender Alex Gogic might have owed his inclusion in the side to his comfort in such a setting. He had of course tasted two cup final defeats here with Hibs although as he himself was quick to point out prior to the match, “there were two semi-final victories as well”.
He made some telling challenges with two standout ones being on Scotland striker Che Adams. The first saw Hampden roar as one in the hope of a penalty after Adams crashed to the turf neat to the byline but Gogic had brushed the ball with his toe.
Another tackle, on the same player, was equally legal but a lot more robust and meant Adams was unable to continue. It might not have proved hugely significant in terms of this outcome but there’s the little matter of a clash against Spain looming on Tuesday. Adams is now toiling with a tight calf. His power will be missed if he is unable to recover in time although Lyndon Dykes did not do badly after replacing him. He helped set up fellow substitute McTominay with three minutes left of normal time.
Indeed, all the substitutes contributed to the goal and Ryan Christie’s part cannot be overplayed as he won the ball on the right and swung in the cross that Dykes managed to head into McTominay’s path despite falling to the turf. The Manchester United player beat Danilo Spoljaric to the ball before taking a touch and sweeping a shot into the roof of the net.
It was late – but not as late or as crucial as his previous Scotland goal, which came deep in injury time against Israel. It was no surprise when McTominay popped up again in time added on to give Scotland the margin of victory that had seemed to be anticipated by their confident start.
The midfielder slammed in a third after McGinn’s quickly taken free kick on the left. Cyprus defender Nicholas Ioannou was then sent off in the dying moments after picking up a second booking for kicking the ball away.
Clarke had some issues with the lull that set in before half-time but six months after their last competitive outing, some rustiness was to be expected. The problem now is too little time to soothe aches and pains before top seeds Spain alight in Glasgow.