Steve Clarke must have wished this international break would never end. This is not a common emotion for Scotland managers. Three wins out of three, the latest against an impressive Czech Republic team, have given the Scots a sense of momentum and optimism absent for so long.
Scotland have a four-point lead at the top of their Nations League group and will head to Serbia next month for an encounter that could end a major tournament absence stretching back to 1998 with a spring in their step.
It is a stretch to say Scotland deserved to beat the Czechs. This game evolved into Dick Turpin territory. In the second half, all the attacking came from the visitors. Still, Clarke is in the business of results. He can be perfectly satisfied with a trio of matches where progress was identifiable. By full-time, Scotland had a raft of backup players on the pitch.
The first half supplied excellent entertainment and emphasised both a higher standard of opposition and the enhanced belief that now exists within Clarke’s squad. Whisper it but Scotland looked like a fine team.
Newcastle may well reap the benefits of Ryan Fraser’s minutes in Scotland’s dark blue and the hosts had cause to celebrate a crisp, first-time finish that concluded a fine sixth-minute move. Stephen O’Donnell won possession and fed Lyndon Dykes, whose pass to Fraser was as composed as the latter’s strike.
Matej Vydra should have drawn the Czech Republic level from a Vladimir Coufal cross but instead slashed wide when free at the back post. Fraser responded with a curling shot from long range, which narrowly missed Tomas Vaclik’s goal. He should have done better when sent clean through by John McGinn. This time, the winger’s attempt was wastefully high.
Vydra was afforded another opportunity to equalise within five minutes of the restart. He attempted to bend a shot beyond David Marshall from a reasonably tight angle but miscued to the point where the ball almost went for a throw-in.
The chance, though, was typical of a dominant Czech start to the second half. Marshall produced an unorthodox save to deny Tomas Soucek’s header, before McGinn blocked a net-bound poke from Alex Kral.
With 20 minutes to play, it was strange that Scotland had retained their lead. Soucek was guilty of missing from all of four yards after a Coufal pass dropped to his feet. Oli McBurnie, who had replaced Dykes, almost enhanced Soucek’s embarrassment with a dipping shot from 20 yards that rattled the bar. Amazingly, Fraser’s goal proved the solitary one. Eight games – yes, eight – undefeated is the key to Clarke’s broad smile.