Steven Naismith was a late call-up to this Scotland squad but his contribution proved crucial to last night’s opening Nations League win against Albania.
The Hearts forward was the catalyst for success with two headers to earn Alex McLeish the first competitive victory of his second spell in charge of the national team.
Having missed a glaring first-half chance with a point-blank header off the post, Naismith more than atoned after the interval. He met captain Andy Robertson’s cross at the back post with his forehead and the ball ricocheted off Berat Xhimshiti’s and into the Albanian net. Then, when goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha failed to collect John McGinn’s corner, the 31-year-old cushioned another header into the empty net to put the result beyond doubt.
The Albania coach Christian Panucci could only watch in frustration as Scotland dominated much of the play. The visitors offered occasional threats but found the reinstated Allan McGregor defiant in front of the Scottish goal.
The Nations League format has a simple context for Scotland: Finish top of a mini section involving four games against Albania and Israel and Euro 2020 play-off place is guaranteed. It is potentially the most straightforward route towards a major tournament the national side have encountered. However, Scotland and uncomplicated tasks don’t often mix well, especially against smaller nations, as the Tartan Army can attest.
This triumph set them off on the correct foot before next month’s trip to Israel. A bold team selection by McLeish saw John Souttar start his first competitive international at senior level. That removed any slender possibility that the Hearts defender’s Australian mother could see him called up by the Socceroos.
His Tynecastle Park colleague Naismith joined him in the starting line-up following Friday’s 4-0 friendly loss against Belgium. He was only called up to the squad a week ago as a replacement for Oliver McBurnie. Likewise, goalkeeper McGregor, defender Stephen O’Donnell and forward Johnny Russell were also promoted.
Albania arrived in Glasgow in confident mood. They beat Israel 1-0 in the opening game in this Nations League section on Friday night in Elbasan and carry plenty experience with several players from reputable Italian clubs.
Captain Elseid Hysaj is a Napoli defender, winger Ledian Memushaj is with Pescara, whilst centre-backs Xhimshiti and Frederic Veseli represent Atalanta and Empoli respectively. They can also boast tournament experience having reached the 2016 European Championship finals in France. So Scotland’s task was far from straightforward against the Southeastern Europeans.
Those in dark blue opened with purpose. An early Callum McGregor free-kick from a tight angle was pushed to safety by Strakosha. Another set-piece effort at goal from Charlie Mulgrew on ten minutes required two attempts for Strakosha to hold on the sodden Hampden surface.
There was no question the wet conditions suited Scotland far more than their opponents. The high-tempo start would have pleased McLeish, who was himself taking a soaking on the edge of the technical area. Like the rain, the home pressure didn’t let up. On 17 minutes, Russell should have opened the scoring but scuffed O’Donnell’s low cross. The Sporting Kansas City player’s follow-up effort was blocked by Xhimshiti.
Scotland were carving Albania apart almost at will and their best chance arrived on 24 minutes as Naismith passed up the proverbial sitter. McGinn’s free-kick from the left was headed across goal by Mulgrew at the back post. Naismith was on the move and only needed to plant his header into the net from two yards, but somehow the ball rebounded off the lucky Strakosha’s right post and across the face of goal to safety.
Another delivery from the left by Kieran Tierney caused more consternation for the visitors. Again they survived. Kevin McDonald sent a 20-yard strike over the crossbar and Naismith did find the net as the interval approached, only for an offside flag to deny him.
Albania could have sprung a sucker punch on the hosts after McGinn carelessly conceded possession to Memushaj in midfield. He charged forward for a shot which rolled wide of target. It was a reminder than concentration levels had to be maintained despite the Scottish dominance in play.
Eventually, the breakthrough came a minute into the second half. Robertson’s deep left-sided cross found Naismith at the back post, and his header ricocheted off Xhimshiti on its way into the net. It was the break McLeish’s side needed, although they almost instantly ruined their good fortune.
McGinn was again culpable when he stroked a weak backpass towards his defence. Bekim Balaj intercepted the ball to set off for goal, but his shot was saved by McGregor. The Rangers keeper then defied Balaj again with his foot – a vital reaction stop – following a quick counter-attack which exposed the Scottish defence.
With Stuart Armstrong on in place of Kevin McDonald, Scotland’s midfield took a more forward-thinking approach. They looked fairly comfortable even without a second goal, although Albania offered the odd moment of danger. Emanuele Ndoj’s curving cross was side-footed over by Balaj before that crucial second arrived from Naismith on 68 minutes.
McGinn’s outswinging corner glanced Veseli’s head, which took it out of goalkeeper Strekosha’s reach. Naismith was well placed to plant another header into the net from ten yards. There was no deflection this time. Callum McGregor would have made it 3-0 but his left-footed shot was blocked and spun away for a corner.
The energy Scotland expended meant their pace dropped slightly towards the end of the game. They had been given a complete chasing by Belgium on Friday evening. This was considerable improvement and a base on which to build for the remainder of the Nations League campaign.
Scotland (3-4-1-2): A McGregor; Souttar, Mulgrew, Tierney; O’Donnell, McDonald (Armstrong 46), McGinn, Robertson; C McGregor (McTominay 79); Russell (Griffiths 70), Naismith. Unused subs: Gordon, Archer, Paterson, Forrest, Snodgrass, Jack, Shinnie.
Albania (4-3-3): Strakosha; Hysaj, Veseli (Mihaj 90), Xhimshiti, Binaku; Xhaka, Lilaj, Ndoj (Manaj 66); Gavazaj (Prenga 46), Balaj, Memushaj. Unused subs: Berisha, Hoxha, Agolli, Basha, Mavraj, Lika, Kace, Guri, Hyka.
Referee: Bo Karlsson (Sweden).