There was no acceptable alternative to victory for Alex McLeish in this, Scotland’s Nations League opener. The manager – unmoved from the pitchside for 90 minutes in pouring rain – knew that all right, such has been the scale of audible discontent surrounding the Scottish team. Handily for McLeish, Albania provided woefully limited opposition on the kind of occasion disappointingly removed from those that made Hampden Park a place for visiting teams to fear. Still, in this context a win mattered more than anything. That Scotland fully deserved it was a bonus.
This success affords McLeish that priceless managerial commodity: breathing space. Earlier friendly fixtures cannot be discarded in analysis of this, McLeish’s second tenure, but here Scotland won when it mattered. The Nations League may yet prove their major tournament salvation, given 20 years have passed since the Scots appeared in a finals. Steven Naismith, a late call-up to McLeish’s squad, made the difference against Albania.
“We were under pressure,” conceded McLeish. “I know the way football works but I’m building a wall, I’m not papering over cracks. Everyone said we must win and we did win. It was a very good performance.”
McLeish caused a pre-match stir by leaving out Leigh Griffiths, Stuart Armstrong and James Forrest. The deployment of Stephen O’Donnell and Andy Robertson meant they started proceedings with five defenders. At home to the 58th-ranked team in the world this move raised eyebrows. “I think I’m well qualified to select who I choose to,” said McLeish sharply afterwards.
And, notwithstanding, Scotland opened in positive fashion. Albania spent the first 20 minutes camped in their own half, which appeared a source of serious touchline frustration for their manager, Christian Panucci.
There was also an extraordinary let-off for the visitors. John McGinn’s free-kick was headed into the path of Naismith by Charlie Mulgrew. Naismith had the simplest of tasks to head home but the Hearts player instead watched his effort bounce off a post and across the goalline to safety.
Naismith did have the ball in the net before the interval, only for the close-range strike to be correctly ruled out for offside. Albania’s only response came via Ledian Memushaj, who dragged a shot wide after McGinn had handed him possession.
Scotland were shortly to receive the early second-half stroke of fortune they, on balance of play alone, may claim was merited. Naismith, on the occasion of winning his 47th cap, was again in an offside position when moving to meet a Robertson cross but no flag was forthcoming and his header found the net after a deflection from Berat Xhimshiti.
Albania almost responded within seconds but Bekim Balaj instead fluffed his lines after another McGinn blunder. The same Albania attacker was soon brilliantly thwarted by the outstretched legs of Allan McGregor. In light of this Scotland were glad of the cushion that duly arrived. McGinn’s corner found its way to Naismith, with the Albania goal unguarded because of the erratic dive of Thomas Strakosha. Albania never looked capable of clawing themselves back into proceedings; and duly did not.