Scotland will face Austria on Tuesday with hope and belief renewed. A slender yet thoroughly deserved and essential victory over Moldova ensured World Cup qualification remains in sight for Steve Clarke’s side, though it would help their prospects and nerves immeasurably to finally discover a ruthless touch in front of goal.
Lyndon Dykes’ early tap-in was sufficient for a vital win that sets the stage for a potentially decisive contest in Vienna. Clarke was simply grateful for the points, given it was only Scotland’s second win in 10 competitive matches, and could take encouragement for the future in Billy Gilmour’s and Nathan Patterson’s impressive first starts at Hampden Park. But he knows the margin of victory should have been far greater. In a tightly-fought fight for second place in Group F, his team must overcome their profligacy and generosity as a matter of urgency. “We should have been more clinical and it would have been a far more comfortable night,” the Scotland manager admitted. “We had the chances for a second but I’m pleased with the attitude and the performance. There were a lot of changes and no time on the training pitch, so I’m pleased with how the boys slotted in. I’m a great believer in if you keep creating chances you will take them eventually. One day we will take three or four.”
Scotland performed with a positivity and intensity that was painfully absent from the first half of Wednesday’s defeat by Denmark. It helped that Clarke had a much stronger squad available than in Copenhagen, and therefore resisted putting square pegs in round holes, with John McGinn and Patterson free of Covid issues and Kevin Nisbet recovering from injury.
McGinn set the tone with two surging runs from midfield in the opening three minutes. The first ended with Patterson cutting inside and shooting wide. The second almost freed Andy Robertson inside the box. Scotland’s captain, making his 50th appearance for his country, was restored to his natural habitat on the left after the failed experiment of his right wing back role against the Danes.
A more comfortable fit at right wing back played a pivotal role in the early breakthrough. Rangers’ defender Patterson, the subject of two failed bids from Everton in the last transfer window, showed superb awareness to intercept an attempted pass out from the back by Moldova captain Igor Armas. As Moldova coach Roberto Bordin raged at the defender’s error, Patterson charged forward and released Nisbet on the right. The striker returned the ball into his path and, although goalkeeper Cristian Avram tipped away Patterson’s deft touch, Dykes was on hand to convert the rebound into an empty net.
It was the start that Scotland craved and should have provided the platform for a commanding interval lead. Nisbet dithered too long in possession when released inside the area by Dykes, enabling Oleg Reabciuk to clear. Kieran Tierney was presented with a glorious chance when left alone in the six-yard box at a Gilmour corner. The defender’s attempt at a textbook header lacked power and direction and Avram pushed over an effort that should have extended Scotland’s lead.
Robertson skied over after a fine run and inviting pass from Ryan Christie, while Gilmour and Tierney both had shots saved as the hosts maintained pressure before the break. Moldova had posed little threat but served warning of Scotland’s need for a second goal when striker Mihail Ghecev shot just wide of Craig Gordon’s left-hand post and Maxim Potirniche almost profited from a corner. The solid Jack Hendry diverted the defender’s back post header over. But the comfort of that second goal remained elusive.
Gilmour was again hugely impressive in the heart of Scotland’s midfield. Die 20-jarige, making only his fifth international appearance, always demanded the ball, always showed for it and always found space to dictate play. But he should have settled matters when seizing on a loose throw from the Moldova keeper and finding himself with only Avram to beat following a slick exchange with Nisbet.
The head-in-hands reaction when Gilmour side-footed wide from six yards out was justified. Grant Hanley headed over from a Kevin McLean corner and Christie blazed over when freed inside the area by the substitute, but Moldova never seriously threatened to punish Scotland’s wastefulness. “It wasn’t a nervous last 10 minutes apart from the scoreline,”Sê Clarke.