Hearts captain Christophe Berra paved the way for a straightforward and crucial victory for resurgent Scotland on a night when the only real stress they endured concerned what was occurring in London.
The Scots had to beat Malta to keep alive their hopes of finishing second in World Cup Group F, and this outcome never looked in any doubt beyond the ninth minute when Berra marked his 38th cap by nodding home his fourth goal for his country. In order to take their pursuit of a play-off place into the final two games in October, however, Gordon Strachan’s team also required a favour from group leaders England. Had the Auld Enemy lost to second-place Slovakia at Wembley, Scotland’s dream of making it to Russia next summer would have effectively been snuffed out. Worryingly for the Tartan Army, this doomsday scenario was on the cards for more than half an hour as Slovakia took an early lead, casting a sense of unease over Hampden.
In the end, however, all went to plan both in Glasgow and London as Leigh Griffiths added a second for Scotland early in the second half and England fought back to defeat Slovakia.
This means that, having seemingly looked doomed to another failed campaign after a start that yielded just four points from the first four games, Scotland, although currently placed fourth in this ultra-competitive section, will be guaranteed second place and a crack at the play-offs if they finish the campaign with back-to-back victories at home to Slovakia and away to Slovenia next month.
Not surprisingly, Strachan kept faith with the same XI who performed so impressively in the 3-0 win over Lithuania in Vilnius on Friday. That meant Hearts captain Berra started his third successive match for the national team alongside Charlie Mulgrew in central defence, while Hibs pair Steven Whittaker and John McGinn were again among the substitutes. Neither player would make it on to the pitch.
Before Scotland even had time to find their rhythm, Hampden was visited by a sense of deflation as news of Slovakia’s early goal at Wembley began to filter round the stadium. The Scotland players, with confidence high after their recent exploits, seemed unfazed by the low-key atmosphere, however, and soon set about pinning their visitors back. Stuart Armstrong, who opened the scoring in Vilnius three nights earlier, signalled the hosts’ intent with a low shot from the edge of the box which fizzed inches wide.
Two minutes later Leigh Griffiths was denied by Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg as he tried to force home a Matt Phillips cutback, and James McArthur saw his effort from the rebound charged down. Griffiths then cut in from the right and the ball broke kindly to James Forrest, whose low shot from 16 yards out was clawed behind by Hogg. Scotland were building up a head of steam and Andy Robertson saw an angled shot from wide on the left deflected behind for a corner in the ninth minute.
From the resulting corner, taken by Griffiths, Berra powered in at the back post and outjumped his marker to nod into the net. It was the first time since Andy Webster scored in a friendly against the USA in November 2005 that a Hearts player had scored for Scotland. The home support were celebrating what they thought was a second Scotland goal in the 13th minute but Armstrong’s angled shot rippled the sidenetting after he had been slipped through on goal by his former Dundee United colleague Robertson.
Malta were posing very little threat in attack but their defender, Samuel Magri, went close to putting the ball into his own net in the 21st minute when he knocked a low Forrest cross behind after the Celtic winger had overlapped clubmate Griffiths down the right.
From the resulting corner, again taken by Griffiths, Berra headed harmlessly over. Scotland continued to dominate and, in the 27th minute, McArthur played Phillips in down the right flank but the West Bromwich Albion attacker’s inviting delivery across goal found no takers.
Griffiths curled a free-kick over the bar after half an hour before Berra headed wide in the 36th minute after getting on the end of another corner from the Celtic striker. Before the Hearts defender had returned to his own half following this foray up the park, a roar began reverberating around the stadium in response to news of Eric Dier’s equaliser for England. With Scotland having been in command of their own match from the outset, the lingering potential for a Slovakian upset in London was the only impediment to the Tartan Army enjoying this relatively straightforward victory.
Scotland made their first change of the match at the start of the second half as James Morrison came on for fellow central midfielder McArthur. This substitution did nothing to alter the flow of the game, with Forrest seeing a powerful angled strike from wide on the right beaten out by Hogg.
The goalkeeper was helpless a minute later, however, as Scotland doubled their advantage.
Armstrong’s pass slipped Robertson in behind down the left and the rampant Liverpool full-back fizzed over a cross which was met at the front post by the in-rushing Morrison. The West Brom player’s effort crashed back off the post and into the path of Griffiths who gleefully bundled the ball over the line and into the same net he had bulged twice with his sensational free-kicks against England in Scotland’s last home match three months previously.
All that was required now to ensure a stress-free finish to the evening was for England to get themselves ahead. After Forrest saw a shot touched wide by Hogg, and Mulgrew had hobbled off to be replaced by Grant Hanley, the moment the Scotland fans had been waiting for arrived in the 59th minute, with another roar going up to acclaim word of Marcus Rashford’s goal for Gareth Southgate’s team.
Just as the stars looked like they were beginning to align nicely, however, Scotland were dealt a blow when Griffiths had to limp off in the 68th minute with what looked like a calf strain after he burst away from his man to get a shot away from the edge of the box. Chris Martin, the man who resuscitated this once-ailing Scottish campaign with his late winner against Slovenia in March, entered the fray in place of the Celtic striker. That crucial strike sparked a run in which Strachan’s team have now taken ten points from a possible 12. A nation is beginning to believe once more in a campaign which looked a complete write-off at the turn of the year.
Scotland: Gordon, Berra, Mulgrew (Hanley 56), Robertson, Tierney, Brown, Phillips, Armstrong, Forrest, Griffiths (C Martin 70), McArthur (Morrison 46). Subs not used: McGregor, Anya, Naismith, Ritchie, Snodgrass, Fraser, McGinn, R Martin, Archer.
Malta: Hogg, Magri, S Borg (A Muscat 86), Agius, R Fenech, Schembri (Gambin 71) Z Muscat, Kristensen (P Fenech 85), Zerafa, Effiong, Pisani. Subs not used: Bonello, Failla, Mifsud, Farrugia, C Borg, Johnson.
Referee: Jakob Kehlet (Denmark)