FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS; WORLD CUP QUALIFIERS; Scotland Cruise Past Malta to Set Up a Night for the Ages against Slovakia at Hampden

Daily Mail (London), September 5, 2017 | Go to article overview

FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS; WORLD CUP QUALIFIERS; Scotland Cruise Past Malta to Set Up a Night for the Ages against Slovakia at Hampden


Byline: STEPHEN MCGOWAN Chief Football Writer at Hampden Park

SCOTLAND 2 Berra 9 Griffiths 49 MALTA 0

IN a little over four weeks' time, Hampden Park will savour a taste of old times. The visit of Slovakia heralds the kind of night the Tartan Army once regarded as an entitlement.

A full stadium in the closing stages of a nip-and-tuck World Cup group from which the national team can still qualify.

Post-Brexit, the Tartan Army felt England were due them a favour. The sight and sound of Scotland supporters cheering goals from Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford was a confusing and unprecedented business, reflecting the desperation for a return from the international wilderness. And the pressing need for Slovakia to slip up at Wembley.

Despite the loss of an early goal, England did their bit. Efforts from Christophe Berra and Leigh Griffiths ensured Scotland also did theirs, remaining on course for second place and a qualifying play-off.

The night was not perfect. In the clamour to paint the battle in Group F as a straight fight between the Scots and Slovakia, it has been easy to overlook the presence of Slovenia. But their 4-0 victory over Lithuania saw them return to third place on goal difference.

At least Scotland know what they have to do. Defeat Slovakia next month then travel to Ljubljana and finish the job. It's in their own hands now.

The first win in a qualifying double-header since 2007 was an oddly subdued affair. It took England 53 minutes to break down Malta last Friday. Scotland only needed nine, but didn't really kick on thereafter.

The opening goal was similar in many ways to the breakthrough in Lithuania but for one thing. The scorer. A left-footed Griffiths corner once again speared its way into a crowded area and, this time, defender Berra -- rather than Stuart Armstrong -- applied the downward header after rising above Malta defender Sam Magri.

The fourth international goal for the Hearts captain followed a bright, energetic start to the game for a Scots starting 11 unchanged from the 3-0 win in Vilnius.

Their momentum was evident from the off. Matt Phillips was a persistent menace to the Maltese, his driving wing play producing a low cross spilled by keeper Andrew Hogg. Griffiths couldn't turn it in, before James McArthur's low shot was blocked by defender Bjorn Kristensen.

James Forrest had a prodded shot pushed wide by Hogg for the corner which prompted the breakthrough. Scotland were on their way and, naturally, minds began to wander 400 miles south. To Wembley, where England had conceded a third-minute goal to Slovakia.

For those who remember David Seaman allowing a Dutch goal to slip through his legs, eliminating the Scots from Euro '96, there were familiar pangs of paranoia. Scotland pursued a second goal. Yet the atmosphere was oddly off-hand and distant. Minds were elsewhere, anxious and fretting.

Malta had their moments. They were organised, but there wasn't a great deal to trouble the Scots in a defensive sense.

Armstrong came close to adding a second in 13 minutes, terrific movement providing a through ball for Andrew Robertson before he rasped a driving shot into the side-netting.

There was another near thing on 21 minutes when Griffiths held the ball up long enough for a Forrest overlap, the winger's low driven cross coming perilously close to provoking a Magri own goal. …

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