Evening Express

Scotland boss McLeish bullish over selections after beating Albania in UEFA Nations League

Scotland manager Alex McLeish.

Scotland boss Alex McLeish felt vindicated in his team selection after the Dark Blues won their UEFA Nations League opener at Hampden.

McLeish’s side, after a dominant but goalless first-half display, scored twice in the second half – a Berat Djimsiti own goal and a Steven Naismith header – to start their campaign with a 2-0 win over Albania.

Before the match, McLeish had described the League C1 clash against a team 18 world ranking places below the Scots as a “must win”.

After a 4-0 home humbling against World Cup bronze medallists Belgium on Friday night, McLeish changed his formation and personnel to play with two strikers – Hearts’ Naismith, a late call-up, and Sporting Kansas City’s Johnny Russell, with Celtic’s Leigh Griffiths benched – which raised some eyebrows.

However, after both players put in impressive shifts, the boss was bullish.

He said: “I work with the players every day, so I think I’m pretty well qualified to select who I choose to.

“I felt Johnny Russell and Steven Naismith did well for us. If it’s meant to be it’s meant to be.

“I said that to Naismith. It’s happened to me before, being dropped by Scotland and getting called up again. You don’t look back.”

Naismith and Russell, combined with midfielder Callum McGregor and wing-backs Andy Robertson and Stephen O’Donnell, went at Christian Panucci’s Albanians from the first minute. But it took until after the interval for Scotland to break the deadlock.

McLeish was pleased with his team.

He said: ”It was a very good performance with what we were looking for.

“They were very versatile in wide areas with centre-backs joining in at times.

“We did it with good defensive discipline as well.

“Albania came into it but we hit them with a whirlwind, without getting the early goal.”

McLeish added: “We were very positive and we have had some recent games where we’ve learned a lot.”

The Albania win was a significant one for McLeish since returning to the Scotland job for a second spell. It was his first competitive fixture, and marked his second win in six matches.

High-quality friendly opposition including Peru, Mexico, Costa Rica and Belgium – all at the World Cup in the summer – had limited the Scots to just one goal in five games.

McLeish said he wasn’t bothered by talk over the statistics, and is instead focused on ending Scotland’s men’s 20-year wait for major tournament football.

He said: “People were talking about my win ratio being under pressure. I’m not bothered about that.

“I had to take the South American trip and it turned really positive. It’s three games in a row (we’ve lost) and I’m under pressure to win a game and I know that. I’m not papering over cracks – I’m hoping to build something with these players.”

Next up in the Nations League for McLeish & Co are Israel in Tel Aviv, something McLeish experienced himself as a player.

If Scotland win group C1 – and not qualify via regular qualifying – they face a Nations League play-off semi-final and then a final which would qualify them for the Euro 2020 finals.

The confidence built in the Albania game is something the boss hopes will see them seize their chance.

He said: “ It’s never easy going away but a trip to Israel, a long long time ago, we were absolutely battered in the first half.

“We changed it slightly at half-time and got a Kenny Dalglish winner. It was such a tough game.

“We have the confidence now.”