Scotland should try to manipulate the international fixture calendar so they can play on 12 November all the time. Precisely one year on from scenes of epic celebration in Serbia, where Steve Clarke and his players secured a place in Euro 2020, a further high point was reached.
Moldova were swatted aside with the minimum of fuss. The most remarkable thing about this win was how unremarkable it was. Scotland will feature in March’s play-offs for the 2022 World Cup.
Monday’s visit of Denmark, who have already qualified for the tournament proper, to Hampden Park is irrelevant other than in respect of potential play-off seeding. The claiming of 20 points in Group F with a game to spare is further evidence of stark progress under Clarke. By the manager’s own reckoning, a draw at least may be needed against the Danes to secure a seed. “We want to put on another show in front of a full house,” Clarke said. “We want to end this campaign on a high.”
Scotland had only finished second in a World Cup qualifying group twice before now. Quite rightly, Clarke and his jubilant squad took the acclaim of a boisterous travelling support at full time here. They were denied that in Belgrade, after all.
“Back in March we were 12 games away from Qatar, now it’s two,” Clarke said. “But we won’t get overexcited. We want to get through the play-offs.”
Goals in each half secured Scotland’s success. They controlled the vast majority of the game. Even late concern wasn’t merited; Moldova’s penalty with nine minutes to play was batted away by Craig Gordon before Kieran Tierney completed the clearance with a superb tackle.
Scotland had suffered embarrassment in Chisinau before. A 1-1 draw in 2004 marked the end of Berti Vogts’s turbulent managerial tenure. Moldova are ranked even lower in the world now (181st) than was the case 17 years ago. A stumble here would therefore have ranked among the worst results in Scotland’s history.
Clarke’s men started with purpose. Che Adams had the ball in the home net inside three minutes, only for the close-range effort to be correctly ruled out for offside. Billy Gilmour stung the palms of Stanislav Namasco with a half-volley from 18 yards. Gilmour remains an automatic Scotland starter despite his lack of minutes as a loanee at Norwich City.
Although limited, Moldova were not totally without threat. Artur Ionita should have sent them ahead when collecting Radu Ginsari’s through pass but instead screwed his shot horribly wide. Shivers down the spine, no doubt, for those who remember the horrors of 2004. There were more as Gordon, who played in that fixture, had to acrobatically save Ionita’s downward header.
The majority of the early play, though, took place in Moldova’s half. The Scots were visibly keen to afford themselves early initiative. Adams could not hook home a rebound from Stuart Armstrong’s shot before the marauding Andy Robertson fired straight at Namasco. The smarter option for Robertson may have been playing in Nathan Patterson, who was in blissful isolation.
Scotland’s failure to score handed Moldova confidence. Ginsari tripped over the ball when set up by Ion Nicolaescu. With half an hour played the visiting support – which numbered far more than the official quota of 300 tickets – had become subdued. The Scots lacked a clinical touch.
It arrived, settling Scottish nerves before the interval, from an unlikely source. Intricate buildup play involving Callum McGregor and John McGinn allowed Patterson to stride forward from full-back. With his weaker left foot, the 20-year-old slammed his maiden international goal beyond Namasco. Patterson, pursued in August by Everton despite a lack of first-team opportunity at Rangers, had justified the faith as shown in him by Clarke by delivering a moment of genuine quality. Relief was as noticeable as celebration in the Tartan Army ranks.
Adams wasted a glorious chance to double Scotland’s lead within a minute of the second half getting under way. The Southampton striker failed to display any forward instinct at all after McGinn floated a superb cross to the back post. Adams was later to have his moment.
The second period was played at a considerably lower tempo than the first. Gilmour, given licence to break forward from midfield, saw a fierce shot blocked but Scotland looked pretty content to hold on to their lot. Patterson’s booking, however, means he will miss Monday’s conclusion to the group.
Undeterred, Patterson played a key role in the goal that settled lingering Scottish nervousness. McGinn, who was terrific all evening, backheeled into his path and Patterson laid a cross on a plate for Adams, who finished cleanly at the back post. A play-off berth was virtually secure with 25 minutes to play; it all felt pretty un-Scottish.
At least, that is, until Patterson was adjudged to have handled in the area, confirmed by referee Srdjan Jovanovic after a pitchside check. Gordon, said to be in “the form of his life” by Clarke post-match, perhaps exorcised some Moldovan ghosts by batting away Vadim Rata’s spot-kick. Scotland’s latest perfect night was complete.