Scotland trash helpless Albania 4 – 0. Ryan Fraser and James Forrest scored their first goals for Scotland, while a Steven Fletcher penalty was his first goal for his country in over two years. Scotland thumped 10-man Albania to go level on points with Israel at the top of Nations League Group C1.
Albania’s chances were not helped by Mergim Mavraj’s red card after he head-butted Ryan Christie at 1-0. A win over Israel on Tuesday at Hampden will win the group for Scotland and seize a play-off spot.
And, with that, they would be just two games away from Euro 2020 qualification should they not have already earned it through the qualifying groups that begin next year.
The win in Shkoder lifts the pressure off head coach Alex McLeish after last month’s defeat in Israel. Nine call-offs pre-match had left him struggling for options, but his young, energetic side impressed and could have won by more.
‘Scotland a joy to watch’
It was not a must-win in terms of Scotland’s chances of topping the group, but for confidence in McLeish’s reign, a result and a performance was badly needed. In an error-strewn opening from both sides, it was the visitors who looked the more dangerous. McLeish had set out his stall with an attacking line-up and blue shirts swarmed over Albania’s backline, pressing high.
It paid off when Christie nicked possession on the edge of the box and touched the ball to Fraser, who dropped the shoulder and finished into the far corner on his right foot. Christie was again in the thick of the action as the game took another turn towards the visitors. Albania captain Mavraj appeared to lurch his head towards the Celtic forward.
Referee Vladislav Bezborodov, who was in the process of booking Mavraj for a foul on Forrest, got word in his earpiece and duly reached for the red card to reduce Albania to 10 men. At times, Scotland were a joy to watch, a glimpse into the fearless young side McLeish is desperate to see on the big stage. Albania struggled to handle Fraser, Christie and Forrest, while Callum McGregor controlled the midfield.
Before the half-time whistle, Scotland were 2-0 ahead. Rey Manaj was adjudged to have handled a Stuart Armstrong free-kick. It was harsh, the ball was hit straight at him as he jumped in the wall.
Fletcher, making his first Scotland start in over two years, and in his first appearance in the dark blue in 13 months, stepped up and stroked the penalty past goalkeeper Etrit Berisha. Any time Albania played a high line, Scotland pounced. Christie’s threaded ball allowed Forrest to put on the afterburners and he added a third after the break.
It was night and day from the disappointing display in Haifa last month – and Scotland were still not done. On his 25th appearance, Forrest had already scored his first goal. But his second showed what a top player the Celtic winger has now become; collecting Fraser’s pass, knocking the ball up with his right foot and thumping in a volley with his left.
Scotland have done the first part of the job and now a win over Israel at Hampden will complete the first assignment of winning their Nations League group ahead of the draw in two weeks for the Euro 2020 qualifying groups.
‘Fitting end to difficult year within grasp’
As Forrest volleyed in Scotland’s fourth goal, the swirling noise of the bagpipes could be heard from the 2000 Tartan Army members who had made the lengthy and difficult trip to Shkoder in Northern Albania.
And, after the huge disappointment of the Israel defeat, no one can deny them the celebrations that will undoubtedly follow late into the night. From the first minute until the last, Scotland were simply outstanding. With so many call-offs prior to the game, the pressure was on, but to a man they handled this with ease.
But the real heroes were Forrest and Fraser. Their pace was a constant threat the Albanians simply couldn’t cope with. The real test will come on Tuesday at Hampden, where we now know a win will be good enough for Scotland to progress to the next stage of the tournament.
And what a boost that would be at the end of what has been a difficult year for the national team and their head coach.
Source: BBC News