Gordon Strachan believes Scotland are building momentum at just the right time after a performance he described as the best of his spell in charge.
The 3-0 win over Lithuania in Vilnius put Scotland back in contention to secure a World Cup play-off place by finishing second in Group F.
Stuart Armstrong’s first goal for his country and a superb Andy Robertson strike put Scotland firmly in command at half-time. James McArthur’s 72nd-minute effort sealed what could prove a critical three points.
With Malta to come at Hampden on Monday, Scotland will look to go into the final two games of the campaign against Slovakia and Slovenia next month on 14 points.
Slovakia, four points clear in second place on 15 points after last night’s late win over Slovenia, face leaders England at Wembley on Monday.
“It’s getting there,” said Strachan, after Scotland made it two wins and a draw from their last three games. “We are a challenging side in the group stage and maybe a couple of months ago we didn’t see that. There is a bit of excitement.”
“Obviously we have been playing so well in the last three games – I like the new energy in the team and the two young full-backs [Kieran Tierney and Robertson] are coming on,” he added. “Terrific. Everybody sitting here, everybody watching are just feeling: ‘okay, we are getting better and better’.”
Strachan has endured some trying times in his five years as manager. So he was able to relish both last night’s victory and the manner of it.
He said: “In pure footballing terms I think it was the best performance. We have had footballing performances and not produced chances.
“But we have also had gritty performances against Germany and Croatia and England. Coming to a place where Slovakia won 2-1 and Slovenia drew 2-2 and playing a team England only scored a couple of goals against was hard.”
“Their energy was key,” added Strachan. “They have got a bit of technical ability, but our main objective tonight was to use our energy. The team has changed dramatically in the last 18 months with the energy we have got in it.
“Technically it was good. But it was the energy that blew the Lithuania team away.”
Strachan handed West Brom winger Matt Phillips a surprise start and had his faith handsomely repaid. Phillips helped set up Robertson, who became the first Liverpool player since Kenny Dalglish 33 years ago to score for Scotland.
“I remember calling him [Phillips] the night West Brom played Leicester and that was his first goal in I can’t remember how many months,” said Strachan,
“We tried to get him in the squad for the England game [at Wembley]. He was injured that time, so we’ve been trying to get him in ever since then and he has picked up injuries.”
Strachan reserved special praise for McArthur, who recovered from a sticky start to score the decisive third goal.
“I must say I thought one of the standout performers was James McArthur,” said the manager. “After the first 15 minutes I was thinking ‘oh’. But he came back from that and that’s mental strength.
“We can all take for granted how Broony [Scott Brown] played and Matt Phillips too, But for James to start not so great and come back said a lot for him. His mates looked after him but he gave us back by scoring a good goal.”