Scotland match-winner Shaun Maloney feels there has been slow but sure improvement from the team in recent games, but refused to get too carried away with last night’s 2-1 victory in Macedonia.
Maloney’s prevalent emotion was relief after he curled home a wonderful 89th-minute free kick to get Scotland off the bottom of Europe’s World Cup qualifying Group A, where they had fallen after Friday’s 2-0 loss to Belgium.
The Wigan playmaker had lost possession five minutes earlier before Goran Pandev set up Ivan Kostovski to stab home an equaliser so his goal had more than a touch of atonement about it.
That might explain why he was so cautiously optimistic when discussing Scotland’s progress following their second consecutive away win.
Scotland cannot finish third in the group unless there is a nine-goal swing on Serbia in the final game, when Gordon Strachan’s men host Croatia.
But he acknowledged that they had not played well in the first half of the campaign, during which they drew with Macedonia and lost 2-1 to Wales at Hampden.
The 30-year-old said: “It’s difficult, because we started the group so poorly. We played Macedonia at Hampden and they were probably the better side so to come here and reverse the trend is pleasing.
“The last three or four games have been a bit of improvement.
“Friday was very difficult against Belgium. I think there is a fair gulf there. But there is slight improvements.
“The Wales game was a pretty bad performance at Hampden. It was probably as bad as I have been involved in.
“There was definite improvement needed and I think slowly we have done that.”
Maloney had only scored once in 30 previous internationals, also a free kick, in a 2-0 European Championship qualifying win over the Faroe Islands in June 2007. And he had vowed to improve that record in the past week.
“It’s definitely something I have thought of,” the former Celtic player said. “I should have scored another one a bit earlier on when I cut back on my left foot. But it’s a nice start and I would like to try to continue that.”
Scotland manager Gordon Strachan handed Castlemilk-born Watford winger Ikechi Anya his first start for the Dark Blues just four days after he made his debut in the 2-0 defeat to Belgium in Glasgow. The 25-year-old gave a glimpse of his talent at Hampden with a couple of pacey runs but his display against the Macedonians was a step up again.
He tormented opposition right-back Daniel Georgievski for much of the first half but proved his quality by slamming under Tome Pacovski on 59 minutes from an almost impossible angle.
But Strachan also hailed the performances of his attacking colleagues Steven Naismith – promoted from an unused sub against Belgium to lead the line as a solo striker – and Maloney.
“Ikechi was good, wasn’t he?” said the Scotland boss. “I thought he was terrific. He brought us that wee extra turn of pace, was a threat and made them worry up front. But I thought Naismith up front was terrific. Maloney too. We didn’t have a failure.”
Substitute keeper Matt Gilks, who came on at half-time after David Marshall suffered a hip injury, made a number of excellent saves before Kostovski levelled in the 84th minute.
Strachan could afford a laugh about the bizarre start to his side’s victorious second half after the game initially restarted with the home goalkeeper making his way up the tunnel.
French referee Fredy Fautrel blew his whistle for the hosts to kick off but soon signalled for the game to stop after realising Pacovski was not on the pitch. The second half kicked off at the second attempt after the Mechelen goalkeeper sprinted into his goalmouth to a mix of derision and laughter from the home fans in the Philip II National Arena in Skopje.
Despite thinking the referee had unfairly stopped the game to allow the goalkeeper on, Strachan enjoyed recalling the moment after his side’s victory.
When asked about the incident, Strachan said: “Brilliant. And then he blew his whistle. There was no reason why he blew his whistle. It was good. That was one of those ones we will be talking about for a long time. I think the game plays on. He cannot stop the game at any time until the ball goes out of play and then he goes on. That would be my understanding of the rule. But who cares? We won.”
Scotland are now aiming to stay above Macedonia and Wales, who meet in Cardiff next month, to give themselves a boost ahead of their Euro 2016 campaign. And Strachan, whose team host Croatia on October 15 in their final match of the campaign, admitted their position in the table had given themselves something to prove.
The Scotland boss said: “I would imagine most of the players would think that, whether it was an individual thinking ‘I must prove myself’ or as a group.
“To come away with a performance like that is terrific. It’s just another part of the jigsaw.
“We are not a great side by any manner of means but we can do terrific things at times.”
Strachan also praised Steven Naismith, who came in for Leigh Griffiths in the lone striker’s role. “I thought Naismith made a big difference to the team and gave us a focal point and allowed other players to play, and that was very important.”
He confirmed he had taken off Marshall at half-time with a hip strain while full-back Steven Whittaker went off with a groin problem in the 80th minute.