It was billed as a bounce game that would allowSteve Clarketo experiment with his side but the same questions that have plagued his stewardship remain after a narrow win over Cyprus.
TheScotlandboss will be thrilled to take the three points but it didn’t go all their own way in Nicosia in their penultimateEuro 2020qualifier.
Clarke handed a debut to Declan Gallagher while Ryan Jack made his first competitive start. Greg Taylor was in at left back and Steven Naismith earned his 50 th cap in a side that allowed fringe players a chance to shine.
It was a team forced on Clarke given the injuries that decimated his squad with the likes of captainAndy Robertsonand Ryan Fraser pulling out ahead of the game.
Despite the issues there was still confidence the job would be done but Scotland got a huge let off in the early stages when Cyprus should have been awarded a goal .
Some brilliant play from Pieros Sotirious allowed Georgios Efrem to get into the box. He turned Scott McKenna inside out and his shot bounced down off the bar. It looked like it was well over the line but nothing was given to leave the former Rangers and Dundee winger raging.
Ryan Christie did open the scoring for Scotland on 12 minutes with his first goal for the
He picked up the ball from John McGinn and drove forward before producing a stunning curling effort into the top corner. It was the kind of classy finish we’ve become used to seeing from the Celtic star and shows why he’s so important for club and country now.
Christie had another opportunity to add a second when he was picked out by Celtic team-mate James Forrest but the attacker’s curling effort didn’t have the same power and placement as his first and it was easily held.
Scotland settled into the game after a poor start and began dominating the ball in the first half without creating enough clear cut chances. McKenna was the next to get a shot away when he had a free header from a corner but it was a poor effort.
Liam Palmer had a strike from distance after the ball fell to him 30 yards out and it looked to be on it’s way in before it was deflected wide.
The second half started in the same fashion as the first except this time Efrem’s goal counted. McKenna gave away a needless free kick out wide and the delivery was met by Gallagher.
The Motherwell defender did the right thing by heading it wide away from goal but it fell at Efrem who produced an incredible volley past Marshall to equalize.
Scotland were back in front soon after though though when McGinn fired home from a Greg Taylor cross. It was the Villa midfielder’s fifth goal in seven games for his national team after netting a hat-trick against San Marino last month.
There were worries when Naismith dropped to the ground with no one around him with a collective gasp from the Tartan Army. He did manage to get back to his feet but after so many injury problems, Clarke decided not to risk him any further and he was replaced by Oli McBurnie.
Scotland appeared to be happy with the scoreline but a worry for Clarke will be how far his side dropped in the final 10 minutes.
It allowed Cyprus to get forward and Costi had another shot at goal and the home side could have had a penalty as well.
There weren’t huge claims but Gallagher could count himself lucky not to be penalized when he wrapped both arms around Sotiriou.
Right at the end Papoulis should have got an equaliser when Scotland were cut open with some brilliant play from Kousoulos but he smashed his strike way over the bar.
A foul by McKenna gave Cyprus another chance but Kastonos curled it over the bar.
Scotland did manage to hold on and claim the three points that pushed them above Cyprus ahead of the final game.
3 talking points
Defense still an issue
Declan Gallagher and Scott McKenna were the pair selected by Clarke on this occasion and it took the tally to five partnerships since the former Killie boss took over. Charlie Mulgrew, Liam Cooper, Mikey Devlin and Stuart Findlay have all been selected at times and although none have been hugely impressive, the lack of a regular partner means the defense can’t gel.
It was obvious in this one with McKenna and Gallagher caught out at times, particularly in the early stages. Efrem turned McKenna inside out and and left him on the ground before his ghost goal while the Aberdeen defender also rashly gave away a free kick for the Cyprus equaliser.
Gallagher looked nervous at times but settled into the game and was definitely the better of the two center backs, but going forward Clarke really needs to get a settled defense.
Cyprus should have equalized through Ioannis Costi when he was allowed to drift in and head the ball goalwards but he knocked it just past the post.
But Liam Palmer solves right back problem?
Yes, it was only Cyprus but Clarke might have found his man to play at right back.
Palmer had a nightmare during his debut against Kazakhstan but not many had a passable game that night. There’s not a lot of options at right back but he looked solid defensively and put in a couple of good balls when he got forward. Stephen O’Donnell appeared to have the jersey but the Sheffield Wednesday right back is a definite contender to be the regular going forward, at least for a couple of years.
With no real contenders coming through from the U 21 s – where Ross McCrorie has been playing at right back out of position – Palmer should definitely be kept in the position for the games coming up in March if he’s fit.
Midfield balance helps McGinn
Clarke spoke before the game about Ryan Jack providing balance to the midfield and although he didn’t put in the performance he has been for Rangers this season, you could see why he was included. Having Jack in allowed McGinn to move forward and play in a role more like his Aston Villa position. His energy pushed Scotland forward and his run for the second goal was vital.
Ryan Christie played off the right in Nicosia and in the first half was a class act, with his goal showing his ability. He often interchanged with McGinn as well to confused the Cyprus back five and it was aided by having the two sitting players in Jack and McGregor.
With Scott McTominay to come back into the squad for the play-offs it remains to be seen if the midfield would stay the same but it’s definitely a good sign for Clarke.
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