By Luke Barry
It was looking like one of those games. A stereo-typically Scottish performance. Close, but no banana.
Russell Martin headed the ball into the back of the net within the opening minutes but the ‘goal’ was disallowed as the centre back was adjudged to have pushed over the Slovenian defender to score the chance.
Leigh Griffiths hit the crossbar and the post in the first half before going off with injury. Had it not been for an unprecedented Chris Martin strike in the 86th minute the shape of this article could have been so much different.
Scotland were the first team to beat Slovenia in the 2018 Russia World Cup Qualifiers on Sunday, moving them up to fourth in the table, just two points shy of second placed Slovakia but six away from table-toppers England at the half way stage of the campaign.
Before the match Scotland’s qualification hopes were looking very bleak. A 1-1 draw with Canada at Easter Road had done Gordon Strachan no favours, although the Scotland manager claimed he had learnt lots from the mid-week friendly. And Sunday’s performance seemed to prove him right.
Scotland were bright and positive from the outset, running Slovenia ragged who looked like they were playing for the draw even when the referee first blew his whistle.
Leigh Griffiths’ inclusion in the team was essential; the Celtic forward making the runs and stretching Slovenia’s defence with bundles of energy and a hunger for goals. He can count himself incredibly unlucky not to have scored his first international goal; he certainly deserved it. You can’t help but feel though that the match-sharp Leigh Griffiths of last season would have tucked both those chances away however.
Chris Martin dug the former Hibs man out of a hole. The post-match talk would undoubtedly have been very different had it ended 0-0, but Griffiths’ contribution was mighty. When Strachan was forced to replace him with Steven Naismith, Scotland were poor. The frustration among the crowd was plain to see and was justified. The performance had been better, but it’s worth nothing without the result and points to go with it.
With eight minutes left on the clock, James Morrison was sacrificed for Chris Martin, who was met with boos and jeers as he ran onto the Hampden pitch. But just four minutes later, a clever first time finish across goal had beaten Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak and suddenly he was the match-winning hero.
One hit of the ball ultimately changed everything. Scotland left it late, but on the balance of play the hosts certainly did more than enough to merit the victory. It was just important that they did, as ‘clinical’ is certainly not a word you could use to describe their previous games.
Despite his goal, Martin should not be starting the next few games which are critical to Scotland’s World Cup chances. With only the first placed team from each group getting automatic qualification and the best eight second placed teams going through, the home matches against Slovakia and England in particular could prove essential, Griffiths did more than enough though to prove he can be Scotland’s main man up top, but it wasn’t just Leigh that made a name for himself on the night.
Celtic’s Stuart Armstrong, in manager Gordon Strachan’s words, had “one of the best Scotland debuts I have ever seen.” It’s hard to disagree. Armstrong was terrific, with great runs on and off the ball and a fantastic passing ability. His ball to play in Martin for the winner was exceptional; well-weighted, accurate and it stunned the Slovenian defence who couldn’t react quickly enough.
Young full back Kieran Tierney also had a great game. The Celtic left back played in the unnatural position of right back with Hull’s Andy Robertson on the left, and looked more than competent both defensively and going forward.
James Forrest also looked lively, with Scott Brown doing what Brown does best in making the vital tackles. In truth, only really Robert Snodgrass failed to deliver the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from him, with a poor delivery from set pieces for much of the game.
Annoyingly for Scotland, the next match against England at home isn’t until June, meaning this momentum can’t be immediately continued. But it will have to be rediscovered, as these next few games could make or break the campaign and determine Gordon Strachan’s future.