Alex McLeish breathed a sigh of relief as Scotland survived missing a penalty to gain a confidence building victory in Budapest.
Scotland had to defend stoutly after Matt Phillips’ early second-half strike to preserve the win. In terms of ensuring the new manager’s reign got up and running, the result was unusually important for a friendly.
McLeish avoided becoming the first Scotland manager since Berti Vogts to lose their first two matches. He did so courtesy of Phillips, who struck his first Scotland goal shortly after half-time.
There was much debate over skipper Charlie Mulgrew’s involvement. The Blackburn Rovers player is due to play in a League One fixture against Bradford tomorrow night. He wished he hadn’t shown such commendable commitment when watching his penalty five minutes before half-time saved by Peter Gulacsi.
Much had rested on the shoulders of Phillips, asked to lead the attack on a night when reputations were on the line. The West Bromwich Albion winger was desperate to avoid another disappointing display in a Scotland jersey. More importantly, the manager who asked him to play out of position could ill-afford a tactical own-goal as he seeks to regain the Tartan Army’s approval. Sensing some agitation among fans following Friday’s 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica, McLeish turned to experience.
There was plenty of green in the stands as well as in the visitors’ line up, with the manager restoring a core of Celtic players – James Forrest, Callum McGregor and James Forrest. A fourth, Jack Hendry, made his debut in a three-man defence and looked very assured.
Ferencvaros play in green and white, hence the colour featuring so heavily in their stadium, where last night’s match was played. The sparse crowd meant the banks of green seats were certainly evident. Scotland are hardly box office these days and the locals had been further put off by a 3-2 defeat to Kazakhstan on the same pitch five days earlier.
Hungary’s loss to a country ranked 136 in the world heaped more pressure on Scotland. McLeish’s side avoided a serious stumble. On a bumpy, rutted pitch, there was certainly potential for mishap against the robust hosts. But aided by John McGinn’s strong performance in midfield, Scotland withstood such roughhouse tactics.
Circumstances helped dictate a greater number of changes to his side than McLeish had originally planned. There were seven in total, three enforced due to injury to Scott McTominay, Grant Hanley and Matt Ritchie.
Ryan Fraser came in for his third cap as wing-back – a deeper lying one that McLeish might have hoped as Hungary started brightly. McGregor played in an advanced midfield role in support of the strikers, if that is how we can term Phillips and Forrest.
This wasn’t quite such an extreme scenario as one of the last occasions Scotland wore a yellow change jersey. On an infamous night in Prague eight years ago Craig Levein sent out a team sporting no strikers. Phillips was deployed at centre-forward here but is more naturally a winger and played wing-back on his last appearance for West Bromwich Albion.
It isn’t the first time he has been asked to play through the middle for Scotland. Memories of his patchy performance against the Netherlands in November did not inspire confidence, however. He eased the pressure on both him and his manager with a well-taken goal, his first for Scotland in 11 appearances.
Forrest was positioned just behind Phillips – again, a player more comfortable playing off the flank. The reason for the pair’s initial struggles was fairly obvious. Players playing out of position don’t tend to hit optimum performance levels.
Forrest did come close to scoring too. He pulled a shot wide after being set up well by Phillips after ten minutes. Just before the interval he failed to get proper purchase on the excellent Scott McKenna’s cross.
Other than Mulgrew’s missed penalty, this was as close as Scotland came to scoring. As expected, Hungary seemed particularly desperate to avoid another setback in front of their own fans.
The home side were certainly enthusiastic, overly so at times. Taking the lead from their muscular centre-forward, Hoffenheim’s Adam Szalai, Hungary fought hard. They were rugged and at times reckless. But the incident that saw Scotland handed the chance to take the lead shortly before half-time was simply clumsiness on the part of Laszlo Kleinheisler, who bundled Fraser over on the edge of the box.
Brief debate as to who might take the penalty kick was ended when Mulgrew grabbed the ball. A set-piece expert, his technique failed him here as Gulacsi dived to his left to make what was a spectacular save.
It might have gone from bad to worse shortly afterwards for Scotland but Andy Robertson was in the right place at the right time to clear Adam Pinter’s header off the line and ensure the half finished goalless. But the scoreline remained like this for only three minutes of the second period. Fraser broke down the right and his deflected cross was met by Phillips on the edge of the six-yard box and hit past Gulacsi into the corner.
It should have given Scotland a platform on which to build but they spent much of the rest of the game repelling Hungary. McGregor tipped over Roland Varga’s 20 yard effort and then made an equally important block from Szalai after Mulgrew’s slip let the big striker in. Moments afterwards a flick from Sazalai slipped past the far post.
These were worrying times for McLeish, who made changes by withdrawing Robertson and Armstrong, for Barry Douglas and Kenny McLean respectively. The game petered out amid further comings and going but Scotland, and McLeish in particular, gained what they so desperately needed.