Even Scotland cannot blow it from here. Qualification for Euro 2024 could be secured as early as Tuesday night if results fall in favour of Steve Clarke’s team but even a delay would only be to the inevitable. The Tartan Army’s giddy foot soldiers can book their flights to Germany. Theirs is a team which displays the courage of its own convictions.
First-half goals from Scott McTominay, Ryan Porteous and John McGinn sent the Scots into easy street against Cyprus. A non-event of a second 45 minutes was totally irrelevant. Scotland have five wins from five in their section and have earned victory in 11 group matches in a row.
The ease with which Clarke’s players swatted Cyprus aside was the striking thing here. Where once those in navy blue spotted banana skins, now they view opportunity.
The culture around Clarke’s squad does not permit excuses. They had a job to carry out in Larnaca and did so with cold-blooded efficiency. Even the stoical Clarke was grinning from ear to ear at full time. These are the headiest of times for a country which rumbled and grumbled around in the doldrums of international football for so long. Automatic qualification for a finals for the first time since 1998 will soon be the prize.
“It is another step on the road towards what we want to do,” said Clarke with typical understatement. “We want to be different to previous teams. We are in a good position. Let’s make sure we qualify then we will work on the next target, the next thing we want to do.”
This Scotland setup has provided salvation for players who have encountered troubled times at their clubs. Kieran Tierney and Billy Gilmour retained the faith of Clarke while out of the team at Arsenal and Brighton respectively. Scotland’s manager has shrugged off McTominay’s lack of action at Manchester United; and with justification.
McTominay’s close-range header was his sixth goal in five Scotland appearances, which represents a stunning return for a defensively minded midfielder. Perhaps McTominay feels he has a point to prove.
Andy Robertson’s attitude was key to the opening goal, the Liverpool full-back bursting forward to demand a quick throw-in from Che Adams. Robertson’s cross met the head of McGinn, who should have scored. McTominay spared his teammate’s blushes by meeting McGinn’s header and finding an unguarded Cyprus net. Scotland had the rapid start they craved.
The hosts, who have thus far merely made up the numbers in Group A, responded impressively if briefly. Pieros Sotiriou was flagged offside before striking the crossbar. Officialdom would not have saved Scotland had a long-range drive from Grigoris Kastanos flown a foot inside rather than outside Angus Gunn’s left-hand post. The Scots heeded the warning. Cyprus appealed vehemently for a foul by Jack Hendry on Antreas Karo – and probably had a case – as the centre-back met a Robertson free-kick. Porteous latched on to Hendry’s knockdown to fire Scotland two goals ahead. Scotland teams of old rarely made such light work of these fixtures. It is not supposed to be this straightforward.
By the half-hour mark, Scotland were three to the good. Their supporters, who considerably outnumbered Cypriots at the AEK Arena, seemed almost puzzled at the level of simplicity. Aaron Hickey combined with the outstanding McTominay, with the latter playing like a man possessed. McTominay fed McGinn, who from the edge of the penalty area curled home his 17th international goal. The Cyprus goalkeeper Joel Mall did not even bother to dive. McGinn is now within two off Ally McCoist’s Scotland goals tally.
A tame opening to the second period was perfectly understandable. Cyprus knew this match was already beyond them and there was little incentive for Scotland to further press on the accelerator in stifling heat. The visit of England to Hampden Park on Tuesday evening may be a friendly and nowhere near as relevant as this game in big picture terms but Scotland will still want to be well placed to take another high-profile scalp.
A teasing, low cross from Robertson narrowly eluded McTominay as Scotland eyed a fourth. This was, however, a rare foray forward. Clarke removed Gilmour and Adams with the auld enemy clash in mind.
McTominay struck a post with a curling effort in the 74th minute. An ambitious McGinn half-volley sailed over the crossbar. McGinn and McTominay left the fray in the closing stages to the warmest of ovations. There were roars again as time was called. Scotland’s perfect campaign remains intact. Nobody should really have expected any alternative outcome.