Uefa Nations League: Scotland beat Albania 2-0 in group opener

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Berat Djimsiti diverted Steven Naismith’s header past his own goalkeeper

Steven Naismith’s persistence paid off as Scotland opened their Nations League campaign with a morale-boosting win against Albania.

Naismith’s header went in off Berat Djimsiti and the Hearts forward nodded the Scots’ second after a dreadful piece of goalkeeping at a corner.

His second-half showing made up for a glaring first-half miss and having a goal chalked off for offside as the home side dominated at a sodden Hampden that was less than half full.

And it was a much more assured performance from Alex McLeish’s side with no repeat of the errors that were so ruthlessly punished by Belgium in Friday’s 4-0 friendly defeat.

Stephen O’Donnell in particular excelled at right wing-back after being a surprise inclusion.

The returning Allan McGregor made a crucial save to deny Bekim Balaj at 1-0, the striker also volleying over as Albania failed to emulate their opening group win against Israel.

Scots’ pressure pays off

In order to quell the rising tide of doubt surrounding McLeish, this was a game that Scotland simply had to win, a first competitive outing for the manager in his second stint at Hampden and the kind of convincing, at times flamboyant, victory that gives him something to build on.

Scotland had an array of chances and bright moments before they finally cracked the Albanians. Johnny Russell, in from the start, had a fresh-air kick when he should have scored, but that was nothing when compared to the one Naismith missed later on. Charlie Mulgrew nutted a John McGinn free-kick to the back post and from three yards Naismith somehow contrived to hit the post.

There were other chances, some slick football and, eventually, a goal to reflect their dominance when Naismith’s header was deflected into his own net by Djimsiti.

One goal was the least Scotland deserved, but they were fortunate it stayed that way when Balaj had two clear-cut chances to equalise and fluffed the pair of them.

McLeish’s team took back control after that. Naismith made it two with a header when keeper Thomas Strakosha was caught in no man’s land at a corner and that was the assurance goal that guaranteed Scotland’s Nations League campaign got off to a winning, and stylish, beginning.

O’Donnell stakes his claim

Stephen O’Donnell had been a late call-up to the squad last week

This was a triumph for McLeish, a manager who was in serious need of a triumph. His team selection raised eyebrows in the preamble, but McLeish got it right against a team that, on paper, looked exactly the type of visiting team that tends to get considerable joy at Hampden.

McLeish’s biggest call was also his best call. In giving a competitive debut to O’Donnell, the 26-year-old darling of Rugby Park, he gave the full-back-cum-wing-back the opportunity to show his stuff and show his stuff O’Donnell did.

O’Donnell was terrific in nearly everything he did in defence and attack. Particularly in attack. The Killie man announced himself as a serious contender for a permanent spot in McLeish’s team.

He brought energy and bite and cleverness and presence. O’Donnell was at the heart of this vibrant Scotland performance on a night that lifted the dark clouds that had gathered above the head of the national team.

Even if only a shade over 17,000 turned up at Hampden – the way things have gone in recent years then that was hardly a shock – this was more like it.

Two goals, three easy points, some stand-up performers and a competitive debut for Scott McTominay, thereby confirming him as a Scotland player. This was the kick-start that McLeish had been waiting for.

What’s next?

Both sides return to Nations League duty away to Israel next month. The Scots visit Haifa on 11 October and Albania travel to Beersheeba three days later, when Scotland host Portugal in a friendly.

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