Scotland have no justification whatsoever to complain about the inconvenient complications of the Nations League.
Last week’s penalty shootout win over Israel, an upshot of this much-discussed competition, has taken the Scots to within a game against Serbia of a first major tournament since 1998. As Slovakia visited Hampden Park, Scotland were perfectly entitled to relish the challenge of strengthening their position at the summit of their latest Nations League section. They duly did precisely that, thereby stretching an unbeaten run to seven matches.
It would be gross exaggeration, and a distortion of history, to suggest Scotland can head to Belgrade next month expectantly. There, a position in Euro 2020 will be determined. Still, there are now signs of steady progress. Whisper it, but some of Scotland’s play in the second half of Slovakia’s visit was highly impressive. Their win was deserved.
“It was a game we pretty much controlled from start to finish,” said Scotland’s manager, Steve Clarke. “I always felt comfortable.”
Clarke does not seem the type to indulge in euphoric celebration. It was no surprise, then, to hear the manager confirm his thoughts had turned to Slovakia in the immediate aftermath of exhausting success over Israel.
Scotland made four changes to their starting XI, which included a debut for the 33-year-old Aberdeen defender Andrew Considine. Slovakia’s Thursday evening had been similar to the Scots – and involved a shootout win over the Republic of Ireland – but what happened next was more dramatic in respect of the teamsheet. Pavel Hapal swapped nine starters but, disappointingly for Clarke, retained the evergreen Marek Hamsik.
A generally forgettable opening half-hour was notable only for an injury to Slovakia’s Matus Bero – who received a lengthy spell of treatment before being carted towards the tunnel – and a fine defensive recovery from Scott McTominay. The Manchester United player, initially deceived by Hamsik’s terrific pass to Lukas Haraslin, regained composure sufficiently to deny his opponent a shot at goal.
In what bore ominous resemblance to the Israel game, Scotland were struggling to make inroads anywhere close to the visiting goal. When a sighting did appear, Ryan Fraser booted a 25-yard free-kick against the defensive wall. This rather summed up Scotland’s first period. Slovakia, while pretty in possession, were similarly blunt.
Football has an uncanny habit of throwing up goals that are not at all in keeping with what has happened previously. So it proved, as a crisp Scotland move delivered a second international strike for Lyndon Dykes. Ryan Fraser combined well with Stephen O’Donnell, whose chipped cross found a perfectly timed Dykes run. The Queens Park Rangers forward, who only formally chose Scotland over the country of his birth, Australia, this year, supplied a first-time finish from close range.It must be recognised that this was fair reward for a more adventurous start to the second half by the hosts.
Oli McBurnie, in search of a maiden goal for Scotland, came within the width of the crossbar of doubling his side’s lead. Fraser, clearly revelling in game time after a long and recent spell in club cold storage, set the Sheffield United man up brilliantly with delightful wing play. McBurnie’s wait goes on but it’s not for the want of trying.
Bookings and substitutions stemmed the flow of the closing 45 minutes but David Marshall in the home goal was barely troubled. Scotland’s three-man defence is emerging as a timely success story. With Fraser increasingly effective, Clarke’s men offered elements of menace not apparent earlier in the game.
If the Czech Republic – who have been beset by Covid-related problems – can be seen off in Glasgow on Wednesday, thereby rounding off a highly profitable international window for Clarke, the Serbian challenge will not look nearly as daunting as many were originally happy to predict. “We don’t look to next month,” Clarke insisted. “The focus is on getting as many points as we can in this section.” Full steam ahead, at last, on multiple fronts.