IT IS amazing what a difference playing with a striker can make. Having huffed and puffed through 90 minutes with a 4-6-0 formation on their last visit to Prague, Scotland took only ten minutes to take the lead against a side ranked 20 places above them.
Gordon Strachan chose not to offer the hosts too much respect, playing the excellent Ross McCormack in an advanced role on his international return. It was his through ball to Ikechi Anya that set Scotland on their way, the winger scoring what proved the decisive goal with aplomb.
It was hardly an experimental night for Strachan, who included only one debutant, Kenny McLean, in the starting line-up, with Tony Watt and Paul Caddis making late entrances as substitutes to earn their first caps.
But it was an abundantly satisfying outing for the manager as he seeks to spark the small improvements he claims are all that are needed to end Scotland’s exile from major finals.
At times it seemed Strachan had gone to the other extreme by playing with two strikers, so far forward was McLean operating at times. Robert Snodgrass also had licence to roam towards the Czech Republic box, as did Anya, Scotland’s match winner.
The system meant Scotland carried more than a hint of menace on their forays up the park. But these became ever more rare as Czech Republic poured forward from midfield as the hosts exploited space in this area.
Anya’s goal offered Scotland the perfect start although they might already have been one down when Borek Dockal’s free-kick struck the bar after only eight minutes. David Limbersky’s header from the rebound was then tipped behind by Allan McGregor, who was superb throughout. Scott Bain, Scotland’s substitute goalkeeper, will have to wait a little longer for his debut.
Scotland’s winning goal owed everything to McCormack’s awareness and Anya’s speed. Sensing the winger’s run McCormack played the part of Steven Fletcher in Dortmund two years ago, when Anya scored a thrilling equaliser against Germany.
On that occasion Fletcher’s vision was integral as he switched play with a delicious pass. McCormack’s assist – he played Anya in behind the Czech Republic defence - was not quite as elegant but it was enough to warrant mystification at his exclusion from the original squad.
Despite the Fulham player’s late addition because of call-offs, Strachan opted to start him ahead of Watt, the only other bona fide striker who had travelled to Prague. Watt featured for only the last 15 minutes after replacing McCormack but will be happy simply to have made a debut, and contributed some good work to see out time at the end.
The decision to start McCormack was quickly vindicated when he fed Anya, who finished with the composure displayed against the world champions in September 2014, and from a very similar position. It isn’t a talent Watford player has displayed of late however – last night was his first goal of the season, for either club or country.
The wonderful strike showed what it possible when ambition is applied. It was impossible to consider last night’s return to Prague without reference to Scotland’s striker-less visit in 2010 for a European Championship qualifier under Craig Levein. Generally viewed to have left a yellow stain across the beautiful game on that occasion - Scotland played in their yellow change strip – they were a completely different outfit last night, unrecognisable almost.
They wore shocking pink for a start as they stunned Czech Republic with a lead they somehow managed to hold until half-time. Perhaps there was some method in Levein’s perceived madness six years ago. Although carrying far more attacking threat than then the visitors were also left brutally exposed at times.
In the ten-minute period following Anya’s opener, Scotland could have conceded at least three times as Czech Republic sought to rectify matters, but McGregor frustrated the hosts with a series of flying saves and brave blocks. The home fans looked on with some concern. This after all was supposed to be a confidence building exercise prior to their team’s appearance at the Euro 2016 finals this summer.
Scotland of course will be absent but this was a heartening indication that they might yet be contenders to make it the World Cup finals, Strachan’s ultimate goal. The supporters certainly haven’t deserted the cause, with around 1500 offering strong backing last night at Sparta Prague’s home stadium. It wasn’t where Scotland played last time they visited but some ghosts were exorcised, nevertheless.
It might have been a far more comfortable victory had substitute Matt Phillips scored either or both or two headed chances that came his way. The first came just two minutes after he replaced McLean but the Queens Park Rangers player directed his header, from Robert Snodgrass’ cross, too near ‘keeper Tomas Koubec. His second opportunity, from Anya’s cross just seven minutes from time, was sent weakly past the far post.
Alan Hutton, already celebrating winning his 50th cap should have earned a penalty after 72 minutes, following Limbersky’s trip. Irish referee Paul McLaughlin thought otherwise, however.
But it was in defence where Scotland excelled, offering the fans hope that maybe, somehow, things will be different to recent campaigns when the road to Russia begins in earnest later this year.