Scotland 3-2 Israel: James Forrest fires Scotland to play-offs
A second spell in charge of Scotland is proving more turbulent than his first but Alex McLeish's new chapter has produced what his opening one could not: a play-off place for the European Championships in 2020.
A third victory in four Group C1 matches means Scotland will play in a one-legged semi-final. Win this in March 2020 and it’s into a play-off final.
It’s the first time Scotland have reached the play-offs for a major finals since losing to the Netherlands 15 years ago.
They have the suddenly prodigious James Forrest to thank. Without a goal in his first 24 appearances, he now has five in his last two outings.
His thrilling hat-trick got Scotland out of a hole after they conceded a long-range opener from Beram Kayal after just ten minutes.
“There’s only one James Forrest” chorused the Tartan Army. It was as if they had found a new hero when the reality is he’s been there all along.
Kayal’s opener had prompted a giant thought bubble to appear above a rain-lashed Hampen Park: Here we go again.
But in a delicious, novel twist, Scotland shook themselves into life. They engaged with the task. No one more so than Forrest, who delivered one of the great performances from a Scotland player at Hampden.
But goalkeeper Allan McGregor proved just as central to this redemptive tale.
His one-handed save from substitute Tomer Hemed as Israel threw everyone forward in the dying moments was every bit as pivotal as Forrest’s match-winning contribution.
Nothing with Scotland is ever straightforward. This old stadium had cause to tense up again in the closing stages when Israel drew to within a goal of the draw they required to top the group.
Eran Zahavi’s strike with 14 minutes left raised the crazy prospect of a Scotland player scoring a hat-trick and yet still failing to feature in the winning side.
This opening stages were proof that there are no guarantees when picking the same team after a good result in the previous fixture. Scotland started as though they had never met one another.
Israel broke the host’s defensive line again and again.
The visitors had clearly done their homework and were attacking down Scotland’s right, which is the one area where McLeish’s side looked vulnerable in the 4-0 win over Albania.
Callum Paterson’s switch back to right back after playing further forward all season for Cardiff City has not been without its difficulties. Israel also noted David Bates was making his Hampden debut for Scotland at right centre-back.
They sought to prey on any sign of nerves.
There were plenty, understandably so given what was at stake. And not just from Bates. It seemed inevitable that Israel would make the breakthrough after their energetic start.
Kayal received a lay off from Zahavi – down Scotland right, of course. Callum McGregor seemed to invite his former Celtic teammate to shoot.
If Kayal’s mind was not already made up then Allan McGregor’s suspect positioning a few yards off his line convinced him to try his luck from 25 yards. The ball sailed over the diving McGregor and looped into the net.
Hampden, far from the cauldron of old in any case, fell yet more silent. It was typical Scotland. With everything to play for, everything still on the line, they had shrunk into themselves.
Scotland now needed at least two goals. They had to graft. The slightly eerie atmosphere meant they had to lift themselves. The bold men of Shkoder now had to pass a different test of their capabilities.
Forrest might have equalised before he did manage to settle some nerves when he found himself with space in the box.
But his effort was blocked. Israel might well have taken a commanding lead shortly afterwards but Mannus Dabbur could not quite connect with an angled cross-cum-shot from Zahavi.
Ten minutes before half-time Hampden began to believe again. Once again it was Forrest, controversially left out of the reverse fixture in Haifa having just scored four times for Celtic against St Johnstone, who inflicted the damage. As in Albania four days earlier, Scotland were the beneficiaries of some fortune when Stuart Armstrong’s shot ricocheted off Ryan Fraser’s back and fell invitingly at the feet of Forrest.
He took a touch and then tucked a shot into the corner beyond Ariel Harush.
While this strike was the product of some luck there was no doubt about the quality of Scotland’s second goal just eight minutes later.
Andy Robertson’s ball up the left was flicked on by the excellent Steven Fletcher to Ryan Christie, who took a touch before flicking the ball into the path of Forrest.
The Celtic winger is now operating on full confidence.
Few expected he would do anything else other than tuck the ball into the same corner as he had scored his first. But perhaps his best finish was the one that sealed his hat-trick.
Fraser wriggled down the left with the ball before having sufficient composure to look up and see Forrest in space about ten yards from goal.
He flicked the ball over defender Omri Ben Harush – a trick he had used to good effect when scoring his second goal on Saturday night in Albania.
He once again produced a finish to complement such a clever dink and steered the ball into the net.
But Scotland would not be Scotland without ensuring some more torment before the close of proceedings. An Israel player was again allowed to advance too far unchallenged and this time playmaker Zahavi struck a bobbling effort into the corner past McGregor. The final whistle, when it eventually sounded, felt like a benediction had been delivered across a previously benighted Hampden Park.