One down, three to go. Gordon Strachan’s mission to reach Russia now looks a little less impossible. Scotland are a quarter of the way towards winning four World Cup qualifiers in a row for the first time.
Strachan might disagree, but a full complement of points from these fixtures is the only way many supporters’ figure Scotland can secure a play-off place. Fortunately there is no need to test the manager’s theory that this was not a must-win game.
It’s still not going to be easy but last night proved surprisingly straightforward, at least.
First-half goals from Stuart Armstrong and Andy Robertson and another from James McArthur midway though the second-half re-ignited Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup finals next summer.
Hearts captain Christophe Berra played the full 90 minutes for Scotland, while Hibs midfielder John McGinn came on for the final five minutes. His club-mate Vykintas Slivka lined up for the Lithuanians, while another Hibee – striker Deivydas Matulevicius – appeared late on as a sub.
It has taken Scotland 145 years to play a competitive match on artificial grass. They found it very much to their liking. There was a degree of comfort to this win that delighted Strachan and amazed supporters taught through weary experience to be fatalistic on such occasions.
There was even some history making to be admired to complement Scotland’s first competitive win on an artificial pitch. It’s been too long since a Liverpool player scored for Scotland in a competitive match – not since Kenny Dalglish curled in a memorable effort against Spain in November 1984.
If not quite its equal in terms of quality, Robertson helped put a little Scottish swagger back into the Kop with another curling effort to put Scotland two up.
Armstrong had earlier shown strength and determination to reach Leigh Griffiths’ corner first and head Scotland into a lead they just about deserved at that point.
But then it should have been 3-2 or 2-1 rather than 1-0. Lithuania had already created several chances on a night meant to be tense and cagey. It was instead a good advertisement for Astroturf pitches.
The beer that swilled from cups tossed into the air in the corner where Armstrong ran after opening the scoring after 25 minutes helped keep the surface slick, as did the pre-match fire hose treatment.
There were some early scares for Scotland to sober up the Tartan Army and also plenty of scoring chances to thrill them. The much-discussed pitch helped offer up openings. McArthur was the first to slip on the wet surface and found it hard to settle, giving the ball away on two potentially significant occasions.
The second of these errors came very close to costing Scotland dear. Indeed, it should have.
Former Hearts player Arvydas Novikovas ran in on goal after intercepting McArthur’s sloppy pass. He turned inside Berra to leave the defender looking foolish. But Novikovas lowered the bar for displaying incompetence even further when pushing his shot wide with just Craig Gordon to beat.
Griffiths should already have given Scotland the lead while Armstrong had also curled a shot past the upright.
Gordon could not relax at the other and was alert enough to tip Novikovas’ 25 yard free-kick over the bar. There was very little between the teams when Scotland struck.
The Griffiths free-kick klaxon had just sounded for the first time. Lithuania head coach and former Hearts striker Edgaras Jankauskas said he had forbidden his side to concede free-kicks on the edge of the box. This was slightly further out but still Griffiths’ effort was just inches wide.
When another Griffiths shot was tipped wide by Emestas Sertkus moments later Lithuania might have thought they could breathe again. Such a feelings perhaps accounted for the slack marking at the resultant corner, which was taken by Griffiths.
Armstrong and Berra both made a bee-line for the ball, the former planting a header firmly into the net.
As can happen in international football Matt Phillips emerged from a long exile to raise eyebrows by starting his first competitive fixture. He had only played ten minutes of competitive international football after coming on as a substitute against Belgium under Craig Levein five years ago.
Now at West Bromwich Albion, the winger was something of a revelation last night. He should have scored himself amid the early glut of chances for both sides but sent a shot into the massed ranks of Scotland supporters.
He was showing an aptitude for the fray that must have pleased Strachan, needing no invitation to come in from the left to help Griffiths. But it was while hugging the far touchline that he helped create Scotland’s second goal, receiving a pass from Robertson and setting off down the wing before cutting the ball back for Brown.
There was no surprise to see Robertson had continued his run to the edge of the box, Brown taking full advantage of the outlet. Robertson took a touch with his right foot and then curled a left-footed shot high into Setkus’ top right hand corner. It’s been quite a week for someone who has recently become a father for the first time.
While a two-goal cushion gave Scotland some comfort they did not have it all their way. Had Slivka not fluffed a good chance to score on the hour mark it would have been a very different end to the game.
But Slivka miscued past the post and McArthur’s goal with 18 minutes left guaranteed what is only Scotland’s second win in Lithuania in five trips.
A quickly taken throw-in taken by substitute Matt Ritchie was then nudged into McArthur’s path by the alert Griffiths. The Crystal Palace midfielder took a touch then shot into the corner. V is for Vilnius – and what could be very valuable victory.
Lithuania: Setkus; Borovskij, Kiljanskas, Freidgeimas, Vaitkunas; Novikovas, Kuklys, Zulpa (Spalvis, 67) Slivka (Verbickas 79); Cernych; Sernas (Matulevicius 82).
Scotland: Gordon; Tierney, Berra, Mulgrew, Robertson; Brown, McArthur; Forrest (Ritchie 65), Armstrong (McGinn 85), Phillips; Griffiths (Martin 80).