Scotland stay in World Cup play-off hunt with comfortable victory over Malta

There was a time in the not-so distant past when even the visit of Malta would have been met with an element of Scottish trepidation. It is a sign of growing confidence and improved form, to the point where a World Cup play-off berth is possible, that Gordon Strachan’s team were fully expected to see off this international football also-ran. They duly did without much fuss at all. Scotland’s Group F destiny is under their own control.

The visit of Slovakia to Glasgow next month promises to be quite the occasion. Which is, it has to be said, a stark contrast to the events of last night. Malta’s dreadful qualification record shows no sign whatsoever of improving. Only rank wastefulness from the Scots kept the scoreline at a respectable level. The result at Wembley also did Strachan and his players a favour.

“Seriously, I didn’t even think about it,” Strachan said of England defeating Slovakia. “I heard the roar maybe 30 minutes in and I thought, ‘Well that’s them scored’, but I didn’t know that Slovakia had scored first. I didn’t know that at all. I think I had enough to worry about at the time. When you get to the stage when your fate is in your own hands in a tournament that’s all you can ask.”

The element of pleasure as derived by Strachan on account of the success in Lithuania on Friday was demonstrated by his team sheet. The manager named precisely the same starting XI as was the case for the 3-0 win in Vilnius.

Scotland’s opener in that Lithuanian outing came from the head of Stuart Armstrong in converting a Leigh Griffiths corner. Griffiths supplied a piece of symmetry and the latest display of his set-piece talents with the 10th-minute corner which this time was headed home by Christophe Berra. If that goal settled any home nerves, the low-key nature of the remainder of the first half rather summed up Scotland’s hiding to nothing against cannon fodder.

Increased use of Griffiths has coincided with an upturn in Scotland’s fortunes. The Celtic striker notched his third goal at this level from a position where it was virtually impossible to miss. Fine work between Armstrong and Andy Robertson resulted in the latter supplying a low cross. A combination of Armstrong and a defender knocked the ball forward to Griffiths, who tapped home.

With victory secure, Scotland’s key aspiration in the closing stages was to avoid bookings to key players – primarily Griffiths and Scott Brown – that would rule them out of the Slovakia match. Griffiths’ night was cut short by the recurrence of a calf injury that has dogged him over the past year.

Brown later claimed Malta’s Steve Borg spat on his leg amid a midfield melee but did not lose his temper sufficiently to collect a caution. “He did spit on me, he is a horrible bastard,” said the Scotland captain. “He put his hand up to apologise but I managed to keep my head.”

Matt Phillips came closest to extending Scotland’s lead and they should have had a penalty when James Morrison was upended. But such incidents barely mattered. Onwards to what is suddenly a pivotal fixture.