Scotland 2-0 Albania: Steven Naismith breathes life into McLeish’s reign

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Alex McLeish got the lift-off he wanted – and needed – on a night of quiet promise in Glasgow.

Berat Xhimshiti is not a name the Scotland manager might have imagined needing to include in his memoirs. But the Albanian defender’s own goal ignited McLeish’s second spell in charge.

Steven Naismith waas in the thick of the action at Hampden Park. Picture: SNS Group

Steven Naismith waas in the thick of the action at Hampden Park. Picture: SNS Group

Xhimshiti deflected in Steven Naismith’s header to give Scotland the lead shortly after half-time and Naismith did not have to wait long to get his name on the scoresheet and provide his side with a degree of comfort.

Eager to promote the case for younger players, it was the Hearts striker, an old head at 31, who did so much to ensure McLeish got the winning start he craved.

Scotland negotiated a potentially hazardous assignment following worrying signs their problems in front of goal were continuing. In the end they might have scored three or four times.

Naismith missed what amounted to an open goal in the first-half to spark concern this might be one of those nights at Hampden.

Such pre-match trepidation was one reason why just 17,455 turned out to see Scotland go to the top of Group C1.

This Nations League fixture began as McLeish intended – with Scotland trying desperately to give those who had attended something to cheer.

But it then took another, worrying course, as the obdurate opponents managed to frustrate the previously dominant hosts.

The rain fell continuously. Eleven years on from McLeish’s last competitive fixture with Scotland, the circumstances could hardly have been in sharper contrast.

Back in 2007 he was someone who could do little wrong and the capacity crowd willed Scotland on against Italy in a do-or-or die Euro 2008 qualifier. Now here he was already struggling to breathe life into a second spell in charge.

McLeish was conspicuously reluctant to ask for an umbrella as he took a drenching on the touchline in the first-half, when Scotland failed to make the breakthrough.

He would have felt like twirling one around his head in the second-half as Scotland finally made their dominance count following signs their superiority was waning.

Bekim Balaj could and perhaps should have scored a hat-trick for the visitors. Goalkeeper Allan McGregor’s alertness preserved Scotland’s lead.

McLeish spoke beforehand of the players’ need to rouse the sparse crowd. A genuine frisson was felt when Johnny Russell took on the Albania left-back Egzon Binaku to set the tone for what was a very positive opening.

Only two bookings, for John Souttar and Kevin McDonald, tarnished such a bright spell – as well as the absence of the goal Scotland’s efforts deserved.

Naismith will wake up this morning still wondering how he failed to score with a header from around three yards after 24 minutes. The ball hit the post and then spun back across the sodden goalmouth.

It was encouraging but also worrying. If Scotland can’t score when playing so well, then this really is a sign of serious impotence.

One goal in their previous six outings had already strongly suggested a problem in this department.

Naismith, the top scorer in the squad and fresh from a hat-trick on his last appearance for Hearts against St Mirren, justified McLeish’s faith.

His lively second-half appearance against Belgium cemented his place in the starting line-up, together with doubts about the fitness of Leigh Griffiths, who had suffered a heel injury in the first-half of Friday’s 4-0 defeat to Belgium.

Naismith did have the ball in the net five minutes before half-time but was flagged for off-side and rightly so.

Somehow, given these conditions, the optimism generated by a bright opening managed to evaporate as Scotland began to look vulnerable.

One point where it was almost possible to discern a sapping of spirit was when John McGinn gifted possession of the ball to Albania with a loose ball in midfield.

Striker Ledian Memushaj drove on and then dragged his shot wide with McGinn chasing back and furiously gesturing to his team-mates to deal with the unfolding danger.

Such an energetic presence, McGinn lets himself down with such casual moments.

He also required McGregor to bail him out in the second half after opting for a pass back that was never on.

Fortunately, McGregor was alert to the situation and managed to sufficiently make his presence felt to put off Bekim Balaj. But this was after Scotland struck the goal that could mean so much.

It was certainly notable – Scotland’s first since Matt Phillips struck the winner against Hungary in March.

A Scotland player was unable to lay claim to it but this hardly mattered. The hosts were stung in the seconds after half-time against Belgium on Friday. On this occasion they were the ones to catch their opponents cold.

Stuart Armstrong, who had replaced McDonald at half-time, featured in the build-up on the left but it was Robertson’s cross that was met by Naismith at the far post.

His connection seemed set to take the ball back across the goal but Xhimshitij’s intervention directed it into the net. Naismith got his reward for a typically bustling performance after 69 minutes.

Robertson’s corner was headed on by Albania’s Frederic Veseli with keeper Thomas Strakosha in no-man’s land. Naismith was in the right place to nod his eighth goal for Scotland into the empty net.