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Scotland beat Malta

Scotland beat Malta to move to within a point of second-placed Slovakia in World Cup qualifying Group F.

However, the Scots dropped to fourth place on goal difference because Slovenia beat Lithuania 4-0.

Christophe Berra headed in Leigh Griffiths’ corner to put Scotland ahead early on at Hampden.

And Griffiths knocked home on the rebound after James Morrison had fired against the post shortly after the interval.

Slovakia’s loss away to group leaders England allowed Gordon Strachan’s side and Slovenia to close the gap on second place with two games remaining.

Scotland host Slovakia on 5 October and visit Slovenia three days later, by which time England will have played the Slovenians at Wembley.

England need one more win to secure a place at next year’s finals, with the best eight of the nine second-placed teams going into the play-offs.

It took England fully 53 minutes to unlock Malta on Friday night, but the Scots managed to do it in nine – and they almost did it even earlier than that.

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Stuart Armstrong, James McArthur and James Forrest all threatened before Scotland scored something of a carbon copy of Armstrong’s goal that opened proceedings in Friday’s 3-0 win away in Lithuania.

Again, it was a Griffiths corner from the right and again it was met by the head of an attacking Scot. For Armstrong in Lithuania read Berra in Glasgow. The Hearts defender climbed above Samuel Magri at the back post and thundered his effort past Andrew Hogg in the Malta goal.

That was better news for the small turnaround of home fans who had earlier heard the developments from Wembley, where Slovakia had gone into an early lead. Scotland needed England to win – or even draw – to keep their own play-off hopes on track. Soothing updates came later in the night, much to the relief of the Tartan Army.

Scotland owned this match but a flood of goals did not materialise. They lost some of their edge when Malta got themselves organised. The visitors defended better, but that was pretty much all they were doing.

For all the matches they have lost in the group – eight out of eight – Malta have shown, at times, an ability to frustrate opponents. As well as denying England a goal for 52 minutes last week, they completed the last 52 minutes of their first encounter with England without conceding any more than the two they had already leaked.

After the goal, Scotland had a few more moments. Armstrong hit the side netting and Matt Phillips had a shot from distance stopped by Hogg, who then beat away another effort from Forrest.

That second goal did arrive, though. Four minutes after the break an Andy Robertson cross was met by Morrison, who had come on to the field for McArthur at half-time.

Morrison’s shot hit Malta’s left-hand post and came out invitingly to Griffiths, who tapped it in from a yard. Griffiths looked offside, but he wasn’t sticking around to ask any questions. He ran away to celebrate his third goal – on top of three assists – in his last three internationals.

Leigh Griffiths scores
Griffiths (number nine) applied the finishing touch for Scotland’s second

Scotland had to make a change when Charlie Mulgrew went down injured. He was replaced by Grant Hanley. Then they made another when Griffiths, struggling a little with a knock, departed to make way for Chris Martin. The hope of seeing the exciting sight of Ryan Fraser died a death at that point. Scotland were all out of subs.

The visitors have had a habit of shipping goals in the final minutes of matches in this group, but that habit was halted here. In fact, one of the best moments in the minutes that followed Scotland’s second fell to Malta when Joseph Zerafa fired in a shot that Craig Gordon parried away. The loose ball broke near Alfred Effiong, but his own attempt was snuffed out by Hanley.

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Scotland could have done with the goals to boost their goal difference, but they have achieved their bottom line these past few days – namely, six points from six.

They now have got themselves into a situation whereby they have control of their destiny in pursuit of that play-off spot. If – and it remains a big ‘if’ given what’s coming – they beat Slovakia at home and then Slovenia away next month then they will take their place in the play-offs.

Hampden had little atmosphere for the visit of Malta. For the Slovakians next month it will be an altogether different story.


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