Two games sit between Scotland and the latest chapter of their redemption story at international level. Victory over Ukraine, with plenty to spare after a superb second-half showing, catapulted Scotland to the summit of their Nations League section.
Two points from their closing two games – the Republic of Ireland are in Glasgow on Saturday before the Scots face Ukraine, again, in Krakow on Tuesday – would seal top spot in group B1. Ukraine’s football team continue to do their nation proud amid tragic circumstances at home but they were a clear second best here. For Scotland, against such credible opposition, this was an accomplished success. The scoreline did not flatter Steve Clarke’s men in any way.
“It was a good performance and we are really pleased with it but we have to go and reset for Saturday,” Scotland’s manager said. “We want to do ourselves justice on Saturday.”
Memories of Ukraine’s previous visit to Hampden Park linger in Glasgow. On an evening filled with raw emotion, Oleksandr Petrakov’s team progressed to a World Cup playoff final against Wales. The fixture had been delayed from March until June after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While Ukraine were hugely popular winners then, defeat was painful for Scotland. Clarke dispensed with a three-man defence for this clash, suggesting lessons had been learned. The decision was made easier by the unavailability of Andy Robertson – three at the back was deployed so he and Kieran Tierney can both play – but this was still a notable switch. It allowed Scott McTominay to return to midfield; an area in which Ukraine had considerable joy three months ago. Crucially, Petrakov could not call upon Oleksandr Zinchenko for the Nations League tie because of injury.
One minute of applause for the late Queen Elizabeth II, a patron of the Scottish FA, was punctured by audible booing from a section of the home support. The atmosphere thereafter was subdued, strange for a match of this magnitude. The Nations League offers Scotland prime opportunity to progress to major tournaments, emphasised by their journey to Euro 2020.
Matters on the pitch were tame, too, until Che Adams tested the Ukraine goalkeeper Anatoliy Trubin with a 10th-minute drive. This triggered a decent Scotland spell, Ryan Christie’s pass narrowly evading Adams before Stuart Armstrong stung Trubin’s palms with a fierce shot.
Scotland were dealt a blow in the 25th minute with the enforced removal of Nathan Patterson, who has excelled for Everton, after he injured his ankle making an awkward landing. Patterson left the field on a stretcher. “It doesn’t look like a good one,” Clarke said later.
Scotland were the stronger team during the opening half but lacked bite in the final third. A similar description need not apply to Valeriy Bondar, who wiped out Adams as he raced towards goal during first-half stoppage time. It was a move more suitable for WWF.
Scotland’s bright start to the second period was without opportunity until Armstrong blazed over the bar. McTominay, enjoying a fine evening, created the chance for the Southampton man with some nifty footwork. Aaron Hickey watched a low drive from 20 yards deflected wide. With half an hour to play, Hampden sensed Ukraine were beginning to wilt. The woodwork saved the visitors after Adams met a John McGinn cross with his head. With another header, Adams forced Trubin into a save with his left boot.
Just when this had the look of one of those evenings, McGinn notched the goal Scotland fully deserved. There was an element of luck behind it, Adams having a shot blocked before Tierney’s pass took a huge deflection into his teammate’s path. Still, McGinn showed terrific strength to hold off Bondar before angling a shot into the bottom left-hand corner of Trubin’s net.
That Ukraine could barely keep the ball was testament to Scotland’s hassling. Clarke introduced Ryan Fraser to try to claim a second goal and with justifiable cause to believe Scotland could find one. On script, the Newcastle winger set up his fellow substitute Lyndon Dykes for the second and third goals. Fraser’s corner kicks from the left on both occasions saw Dykes leap highest. Roll on Saturday, which promises to deliver quite the scene.