Scotland’s two-nil victory over Malta this evening at Hampden Park has secured a showdown with second place Slovakia as Gordan Strachan’s sides hopes over a major tournament return continues.
The former Celtic manager named an unchanged line-up from Friday evening’s 3-0 win away in Lithuania, while, Pietro Ghedin brought back Alfred Effiong after he served a suspension against England, with Jean Paul Farrugia dropping to the bench in the only change for the visitors.
Scotland started the brighter of the two sides on a damp night in Glasgow. Stuart Armstrong fired narrowly wide before Leigh Griffiths and James McArthur saw shots blocks. Next, James Forrest had a snapshot tipped behind for a corner by Andrew Hogg, but the opener wasn’t too far away.
Griffiths’ first corner was cleared away but when Andy Robertson fired in a piledriver, a nick off a Maltese defender saw the Scots have a second set-piece chance. Griffiths’ inswinger was towards the back-post this time and Christophe Berra leaped highest to head the home side in front with only 9 minutes gone on the clock.
There was no let up as the visitors failed to handle their Scottish counterparts. Armstrong hit the side netting before Griffiths fired wide. Berra had another header which was too high before heading wide from another corner situation. Celtic forward Griffiths also had a free-kick chance in the middle of either header by the Hearts centre-back but his shot was wild compared to his twoo stunning strikes against England only a few short months back.
As half-tine approached, Malta seemed to contain their hosts a lot more; Matt Phillips did manage to fire in a final effort at goal before the break but Hogg was equal to it. There was no panic in the stands as Malta had failed to threaten Craig Gordon at all. An early goal or two in the second half would calm the nerves – as well as boost the goal difference column, which may come invaluable come the 8th of October.
James Morrison entered the fray in the place of McArthur as the game re-started, with the Scots starting fast once again and it only took four minutes of the second period before a second goall was to come. Andy Robertson put in a teasing ball from the left; as James Morrison stretched to make an immediate impact, the ball spun off a defender – wrong-footing the goalkeeper – before hitting the post before Griffiths tapped home into the empty night from just a yard out.
The lively Forrest had another effort saved by Hogg before Charlie Mulgrew left the field of play with an injury, being replaced by new Norwich centre-half, Grant Hanley. Kieran Tierney saw an effort fly wide as he cut inside from the right to hit his left-footed shot, before Griffiths was sent clear midway inside the second half. The striker got behind the Maltese defence but his finishing was off as the keeper made a comfortable save from the Scotland number 9.
This was to be the former Hibs attackers last involvement, with what seemed to be a calf injury forcing the striker off. Chris Martin came on in Strachan’s final change of the evening, with just over 20 minutes to go.
Armstrong hit an effort from the edge of the area as the Hampden crowd hoped for a third goal to put the game beyond all doubt, before the away side created their best chance of the evening – forcing Gordon into his only save of the match. Substitute Luke Gambin found space on the visitors’ left and fired an effort across goal; the Celtic keeper could only parry the ball and thankfully for the home side, Effiong was unable to finish under the pressure of Hanley, with Gordon diving on top of the loose ball inside his 6 yard box.
Armstrong and Phillips had late efforts but the Scots couldn’t add to their advantage. A relatively straightforward victory for Strachan’s side who were rarely threatened. Scotland know what must occur: 6 points is the only outcome which would guarantee a second placed finish while 4 points would see the group runners-up being decided on goal difference. A tricky away tie to Slovenia will see Strachan’s side end the group in just over a month, but the 5th of October is the only match on the minds of the Tartan Army for now. A win against Slovakia is pivotal to any potential qualification hopes and tonight’s opponents, Malta, may have a say in the outcome of the group yet, with Ghedin’s side facing Slovakia away in the final match of the section
With it all to play for, the next international weekend cannot come round quick enough. A half-full Hampden saw a victory tonight’ will a full Hampden roar the Tartan Army to Russia? All will be known come the beginning of next month…
FULL TIME: Scotland 2-0 Malta
Charlie Mulgrew (Grant Hanley 56′)
James McArthur (James Morrison 45′)
Scott Brown (Captain)
Leigh Griffiths (Chris Martin 70′)
Jordan Archer (GK)
Allan McGregor (GK)
Steve Borg (Alexander Muscat 86′)
Bjoern Kristiensen (Paul Fenech 85′)
Andre Schembri (Captain) (Luke Gambin 71′)
Jean Paul Farrugia
Referee: Jakob Kehlet