As a keen proponent of sports science, on Friday night Alex McLeish would have visualised everything going right against Albania. Yet even then he would never have been so fanciful as to imagine that everything could come together as perfectly as it did tonight.
It was like an idealized 90 minutes as Scotland trounced a truly abject host. They scored great goals courtesy of James Forrest’s double and an early opener from Ryan Fraser – with both players breaking their international ducks – and enjoyed great luck with a penalty that never should have been awarded. They were also helped by a great big slice of idiocy from Mergim Mavraj, the Albanian captain, who was sent off for headbutting Ryan Christie after 22 minutes.
Scotland now know that any sort of victory over Israel at Hampden on Tuesday will see them win Nations League C Group 1 and earn them a Euro 2020 play-off place. But they will also know that they could play for another century and not have as much go their way as it did in Shkoder.
That is not to downplay a first competitive away win over a top 100-ranked nation in five years and a first lop-sided scoreline that hasn’t come against minnows such as Gibraltar and Malta in the past two decades.
After all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over a catalogue of call-offs, the Scotland side that Alex McLeish was able to select didn’t appear notably second string. Neither did it play like one. Yes, were they fit then Kieran Tierney, John McGinn, Charlie Mulgrew, Leigh Griffiths and Steven Naismith would most likely all have been accommodated. The beneficiaries such as debutant David Bates, Christie (earning his first competitive cap) and Steven Fletcher could all make cases for their club form warranting international recognition.
Hamburg central defender Bates, as expected, partnered Scott McKenna at the heart of the back four. It was the first time that McLeish hadn’t operated with a defensive trio and wing-backs during this Nations League campaign. The miring of McLeish’s tenure in laments over formations, the dreadful display in Israel, a host of friendly defeats and the nine injury withdrawals from this squad seemed to suggest everything was going against Scotland.
Yet the encounter in the Loro Borici Stadium was something of rerun of the Hampden win over Albania. The hosts were slovenly and snarling against a Scotland imbued with energy and menace. With only seconds gone a casual slip from Berat Xhimshiti presented Fraser with a clear path through on goal, only for the ball to get caught up in his feet.
But it was a glimpse of the Bournemouth winger’s ability to wriggle free of markers and he was a constant thorn in the Albanian backline. Much was made of Fraser’s Bournemouth form having made him the Scot who had been involved in more goals than any other courtesy of three strikes and six assists this season. It spoke of a player brimming with the confidence and it didn’t take him long to translate that on to the international stage, scoring the first goal of his five-cap career after 10 minutes.
Christie won the ball at the edge of the box and when he played Fraser in down the left channel, the 24-year-old sashayed forward and swept a pin-point angled effort into the far corner.
If the striker offered Scotland the platform to build a victory, Mavraj helped with a moment of horrendous ill-discipline 12 minutes later. The Albania captain wiped out Forrest, and when Christie protested to the defender Mavraj responded by smashing his forehead into that of the Celtic man. Initially, referee Vladislav Bezborodov showed a yellow but, whether he received word via his ear-piece that the offence deserved red or not, he quickly brandished that colour of card.
The contest, as much as it ever was one, was then done and dusted in stoppage time of the first half when the Russian referee awarded Scotland a soft penalty. Stuart Armstrong’s free-kick seemed to come off the arm of Rai Manaj then placed across his chest as he jumped in the wall. It allowed Fletcher to send keeper Etrit Berisha the wrong way and Scotland right into position to run up an emphatic scoreline.
Maybe it was the sight of seeing Fraser get off the mark for his country in his fifth outing that inspired the two-goal salvo from Forrest who had made 24 appearance for Scotland before tonight without finding the net. He put that to rights 55 minutes in when he received a Christie pass, held off Kastriot Deraku, and held his nerve to dig in a low effort that keeper Berisha got a hand to but couldn’t prevent crossing the line.
The Celtic winger’s second in the 67th minute was the pick of Scotland’s goals. Forrest produced a deft touch to flick the ball into the air with his right foot after Fraser hammered a cutback to him from the left. In the same movement Forrest then smeared a left-foot volley high into the net. It made for a night that seemed to belong to the land of wishful thinking.