Play-Offs within reach

Scots’ World Cup fate in their own hands

Christophe Berra

Hearts captain Christophe Berra celebrates his opening goal (Pic: SNS Group)

Scotland 2 Malta 0
World Cup qualifier, Group F
Hampden Park, Glasgow

Scotland eased past Malta in their World Cup qualifier at Hampden Park to ensure their campaign will go down to the wire.

Tasked with winning their last four matches in Group F to have any hope of making the Play-Offs, the equation is now a simple one for Gordon Strachan and his men: two down, two to go.

The Scots followed up their impressive win over Lithuania on Friday night with a professional 2-0 victory over the Maltese, Christophe Berra and Leigh Griffiths netting the goals in either half in Glasgow.

With England coming from behind to defeat second-placed Slovakia at Wembley – the goals from Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford brought roars of delight from the Tartan Army – it means Scotland could reach the Play-Offs with wins over the Slovaks and Slovenia in a do-or-die double-header early next month.

It’s a simple equation for Strachan but one the Scotland boss would have happily taken four games into the World Cup qualifying campaign.

With just four points on the board from a win in Malta and a draw at home to Lithuania, hopes of making Russia next year seemed already distant.

However, a resurgence in form has seen the team quietly climb the table taking 10 points from a possible 12 and with the finishing line in sight, fate is in now their own hands.

England look set to head to Russia as group winners, Gareth Southgate’s side sitting five points clear of Slovakia on 20 points. Slovenia and Scotland are just a point behind Slovakia on 14 points, the Slovenians ahead on goal difference.

It may have been a half-empty and somewhat subdued national stadium which watched the win over Malta but Hampden will be rocking next month for the visit of the Slovaks on 5 October before Scotland head to Slovenia three days later for the final qualifier which could yet have everything riding on it.

“I’m alright with that,” said Strachan. “When you get to the stage when your fate is in your own hands in a tournament that’s all you can ask.

“We have put ourselves in a position now where we go into the final couple of games still with a chance of getting to the play-offs.

“You can look back and say we could have done better there, there and there but we have tried to make up for bad performances or low-key performances by doing the best we can.

“I was pleased with loads of things. They had the belief when things weren’t going well to pick themselves up and go again. They showed that no matter what the belief was elsewhere, they had belief in themselves.

“We could’ve scored more goals tonight but maybe they were a wee bit tired after Friday. That was more than enough tonight. It’s been a good eight days for the players.”

The nine group winners qualify directly for the finals and the eight runners-up with the best record against the teams finishing first, third, fourth and fifth in their section go into the two-legged play-offs in November.

The way the various groups are placed at the moment, the runners-up in Group F are near certainties to make the Play-Offs.

Scotland: Gordon, Tierney, Berra, Mulgrew (Hanley, 56), Robertson, Brown, Forrest, Armstrong, McArthur (Morrison, 45), Phillips, Griffiths (Martin, 70).

Scorers: Berra, Griffiths.

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