Ralston and McKenna ease Scotland to cathartic win over Armenia | Nations League

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Steve Clarke had implored Scotland to “move on” from recent, crushing disappointment and, albeit against an extremely limited Armenia, his side did not let him down.

Celtic’s Anthony Ralston shone on his first senior international start, scoring a fine opener as, advancing at every opportunity, he not only demonstrated precisely why right wing-back has become such an important position in the modern game but suggested his country’s horizons might not be quite so bleakly narrow after all. “It was a very good performance against a very defensive team,” Clarke said. “By getting in some good positions we eventually broke them down.”

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Scotland fans had hoped this second‑tier Nations League fixture would become a full-on party marking World Cup qualification. Instead Ukraine put paid to that fantasy in last week’s Qatar 2022 playoff semi-final before themselves succumbing to Wales in Sunday’s final.

If Welsh success failed to provoke delight in these parts, the local mood was further dampened by ScotRail’s cancellation of all post-match services into central Glasgow on Wednesday night. With the final train departing a minute into the second half, fans were urged to exit Hampden early. Those who sat through 90 minutes and torrential rain saw Clarke’s side enjoy a thoroughly restorative victory against exceptionally deep sitting opponents.

With Joaquin Caparros’s visitors redefining the term “packed defence” it took concerted advances from Scotland’s two wing-backs to start unhinging the most obdurate of rearguards. First Stuart Armstrong’s shot brushed a post after Ralston’s adroit cushioning of Andy Robertson’s delivery, then Robertson saw a shot of his own finger-tipped clear by David Yurchenko.

Scott McKenna nods the ball downwards to score Scotland’s second goal.
Scott McKenna nods the ball downwards to score Scotland’s second goal. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Having been thrashed 9-0 by Norway in March, Armenia – who defeated the Republic of Ireland 1-0 last weekend – were in risk‑averse mode and pulled so many bodies behind the ball it often seemed they were operating without any sort of striker.

At the end of a week in which an initially frustrated Clark’s future has proved the subject of intense debate it took Ralston’s goal to ease the Scotland manager’s stress levels. With almost 30 minutes gone the wing-back swashbuckled into the area to connect with Armstrong’s cross, dodge his marker and evade the wrong-footed Yurchenko’s reach with an emphatic downward header that any centre-forward would have treasured. What a way for the 23-year-old Celtic defender to mark his full international debut. “He was good,” Clarke said. “He found the right positions.”

By half‑time another header, from Scott McKenna this time, had doubled Scotland’s advantage, the imposing Nottingham Forest defender overpowering his marker following John McGinn’s expertly executed in-swinging corner. No matter that a VAR review deemed McKenna offside as he headed what he thought was Scotland’s third; Clarke’s decision to ruffle Armenian composure with some unashamedly direct tactics had paid dividends.

As the second half unfolded, his possession dominant ensemble increasingly mixed those long, high balls with bouts of high‑calibre movement and sharp, shorter passing of sufficient quality to suggest Scotland could yet win promotion to Tier One and with it a potential backdoor route to Euro 2024 in Germany.

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Even when Jack Hendry momentarily lost concentration, enabling Armenia to finally attack, John Souttar’s fine interception denied Vahan Bichakhchyan. Normal service was swiftly resumed as McGinn saw a late shot touched on to the bar before Scotland’s anthem “Yes Sir, I can Boogie” greeted the final whistle.

Thanks partly to Ralston’s excellence Clarke’s side travel to Dublin on Saturday and Yerevan on Tuesday top of Group B1 and wearing perhaps unexpected smiles.

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