Blocks of empty green seats at Easter Road belied the importance of this Scotland-Qatar friendly for Gordon Strachan.
Preparing for Dublin is everything, even down to playing in a ground full of green. Last night was a chance for some players to stake their claim to feature in Scotland’s most crucial qualifying fixture for years. The response was mixed.
Matt Ritchie struck his first Scotland goal and Steven Naismith again produced an impressive display as a lone striker. At left-back, Craig Forsyth was also solid and assured, while Ikechi Anya looked comfortable in the unusual position of right-back. Ritchie’s goal shortly before half-time ensureed Scotland took the prize of the Qatar Airways Cup after a game which, as a spectacle, offered little. It also earned Richie the man-of-the-match award.
The 2016 European Championship qualifier with Republic of Ireland next Saturday is of far greater significance. That was the sole reason this friendly was played at all. It seemed rather fitting that the away team at Easter Road were clad in maroon. Qatar arrived following a 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland last week and are eager to spread the reputation of their country’s football. The debate over this fixture and the humanitarian issues surrounding Qatar’s World Cup preparations certainly did that.
A pre-match protest by around a dozen folk outside Easter Road’s main entrance was rather pathetic. However, the point that FIFA and the Qatari government should in some way be accountable for reported deaths among stadium workers there cannot be as easily dismissed. The Tartan Army turned out in reasonable numbers despite some feeling that this game should not have been allowed. There was even the customary rendition of “Doh-a-deer”, perhaps amended to “Doha Deer” for the evening.
An open start saw Qatar produce the first serious effort on goal. Captain Hassan Alhaydos drove a 25-yard free-kick which David Marshall held on ten minutes. Eight minutes later, Naismith’s effort from Forsyth’s cutback at the other end was on target but tame. The Everton striker worked Qatar goalkeeper Lecomte Amine more from his next attempt, also left-footed, and won a corner which Charlie Mulgrew glanced wide.
Richie passed up the best chance yet when he side-footed another of Forsyth’s fine deliveries past the far post. Scotland were looking the more inventive and using pace to get in behind their opponents, especially in wide areas. Qatar wanted to play at a more gentle tempo, possibly the only option in the searing heat they are used to back home. There was none of that in Leith as temperatures hovered around 12 degrees Celcius. Indeed, the Qataris seemed to feel the chill, with most wearing body armour beneath their shirts.
The entrance of a streaker livened up proceedings five minutes from half-time. It wasn’t exactly “taps aff” weather in Edinburgh but the naked rambler decided to cast the whole lot aside nontheless. He was eventually caught by stewards and received an ovation as he left the field. His appearance seemed to perk Scotland up, for they scored just 60 seconds later.
A driving run by Naismith resulted in a shot which was blocked and ricocheted into Ritchie’s path. He stepped forward for a crisp left-footed finish from 18 yards and set off to celebrate his maiden goal for Scotland. Naismith then hit a post with a bouncing effort from James McArthur’s clever lobbed pass, and the interval arrived with the Scots in command of a distinctly average encounter.
Naismith headed Ritchie’s corner into the side netting early in the second period, and Scotland appealed for a penalty when the striker was challenged by Abdelkarim Fadlalla inside the box minutes later. He was dunted into the feet of Qatar’s goalkeeper accidentally and was left with stud marks round his throat. Seconds before making way for Leigh Griffiths, Naismith volleyed a dropping ball from Shaun Maloney’s header into the other side netting.
Charlie Adam replaced Maloney and Darren Fletcher took over from Scott Brown. Adam’s influence in an attacking midfield role at Stoke City drew him plenty plaudits towards the end of the season. He lined up in the same role when he came on and did his case no harm with an array of intelligent forward passes. That said, Maloney will undoubtedly start there against the Republic.
The Qataris, much like the first half, continued to look like a group of talented individuals. They weren’t short on technique, skill or passing ability. Their teamwork and shape did let them down somewhat. Mohammed Muntari, their lone striker, galloped in behind the Scottish defence on 70 minutes only to be tackled in the act of shooting by Anya. The Watford winger was being tried out at right-back having played there at club level several times.
Alhaydos got free soon after to cut inside from the left and drive a shot against the legs of Scotland’s substitute goalkeeper Craig Gordon. Fadlalla then went on a penetrating run past but was halted by Forsyth’s challenge as he looked to unleash a shot at Gordon.
Qatar were the better team entering the final stages and coped better with all the substitutions being made by both managers. They also managed to avoid being distracted by a second streaker who, fully-clothed, ran on the pitch to hug Griffiths and run off again. For Scotland, substitute Johnny Russell could have doubled the advantage but for a poor connection with Griffiths’ low cross in stoppage-time. Griffiths also had a low shot saved prior to the final whistle.
Another win was gratefully received from Scotland’s perspective, as was the trophy. The national team’s renaissance under Strachan continues but no-one needs reminding that Dublin will be an altogether different test.
Scotland (4-2-3-1): Marshall (Gordon 46); Anya, Greer, Mulgrew, Forsyth; Brown (Fletcher 60), McArthur (Morrison 46); Ritchie, Maloney (Adam 60), Forrest (Russell 74); Naismith (Griffiths 60).
Unused subs: Whittaker, S Fletcher, Martin, Robertson, Bannan, Samson, Berra, Reynolds.
Qatar (4-2-3-1): Amine; Tresor (Khaleefa 78), Mohammed, Abdelrhman, Fadlalla; Boudiaf, Elsayed; Alhaydos (Hassan 86), Thaimn (Hussain 67), Mohamed (Mukhtar 54); Muntari (Adam 78).
Unused subs: Abonora, Alsheeb, Ali, Siddiq, Muftah, Mohamad, Traore, Sayed.
Referee: Sebastien Delferiere (Bel).