Evening Express

Scotland start Nations League with win over Albania

Scotland's Steven Naismith celebrate's the first goal which deflected in off Berat Xhimshiti.

Scotland made a winning start to their UEFA Nations League campaign with a 2-0 victory over Albania.

A second half Steven Naismith double was enough for the Dark Blues as they saw off the Balkan team at a rainy Hampden.

Although there was a sparse crowd of 17,455 inside the national stadium the supporters that did turn out were treated to a fine display from Alex McLeish’s team.

The Scotland boss made four changes to the team that was beaten 4-0 by Belgium on Friday.

Goalie Craig Gordon dropped to the bench with Allan McGregor brought in, Leigh Griffiths and Stuart Armstrong were also on the bench with Naismith and Johnny Russell coming in to play in attack.

While, former Aberdeen player Ryan Fraser dropped out of the squad altogether due to injury with his place at right wing-back taken by Kilmarnock’s Stephen O’Donnell.

The first effort came on four minutes from the Dark Blues when Russell won a free-kick just outside the box on the right, Callum McGregor went for goal and forced Thomas Strakosha to punch the ball behind for a corner from which there was a muted penalty appeal after John Souttar went down.

In the 10th minute former Don Charlie Mulgrew was unlucky with a long range free-kick that was almost spilled by Strakosha.

There was a flurry of activity in the Albanian box. O’Donnell was released down the right, his low cross was missed by Russell and came through to skipper Andy Robertson at the back post, the captain’s effort was blocked by Elseid Hysaj.

The loose ball broke for Russell but Berat Xhimshiti was in the way of the Sporting Kansas City man’s volley.

Scotland were so close to making the breakthrough in the 24th minute when John McGinn’s swirling free-kick from the left was nodded across the six-yard box by Mulgrew.

Naismith was there but directed his header from three yards against the left post with the ball bouncing across goal before being cleared.

The Scots continued to press and probe as half-time approached, but at times the final pass was not quite right to make the most of some opportunities.

Four minutes from the break McLeish’s men could have been one up.

Robertson got forward down the left and found Callum McGregor on the left side of the penalty area, his ball across the six-yard box was turned in by Naismith, but the Hearts striker was deemed to be offside.

However, replays indicated that he was level with the last defender.

Despite their dominance in the first period the Scots were given a warning of Albania’s threat seconds later when Ledian Memushaj won the ball high up the pitch drove towards the box and fired narrowly wide from 20 yards.

Armstrong was brought on in place of Kevin McDonald and he had a hand in the Scots taking the lead in the second minute of the second half.

The Southampton midfielder worked some space on the left, laid the ball off to Robertson and his cross to the back post was perfect for Naismith to head home from four yards.

Soon after though there was a scare for the Dark Blues with McGinn’s short backpass almost giving Bekim Balaj a chance.

Conceding seemed to spark Albania into life with Sabien Lilaj’s fine pass picking out Balaj in space just 12 yards out with Allan McGregor required to make a great save to turn the shot away for a fruitless corner.

Moments later Lilaj stung the palms of McGregor with a dipping strike from 25 yards.

Just before the hour Callum McGregor was denied by Frederic Veseli’s block after the Celtic midfielder burst through when the ball broke to him in the middle of the park.

Midway through the second period Balaj wasted another chance for the visitors volleying over after Emmanuele Ndoj picked him out with a cross from the left.

But in the 68th minute the game and the points were safe with Naismith getting his and Scotland’s second.

Keeper Strakosha came to try to punch McGinn’s corner from the left, but got nowhere near it, the ball glanced off the head of Veseli and came through to Naismith at the back post and he headed into the unguarded net.

Scotland could have added more goals in the closing stages, but two was enough to secure a deserved win.

Scotland: Allan McGregor, Stephen O’Donnell, John Souttar, Charlie Mulgrew, Kieran Tierney; John McGinn, Kevin McDonald (Stuart Armstrong 46), Callum McGregor (Scott McTominay 79); Johnny Russell (Leigh Griffiths 70), Steven Naismith.

Subs not used: Craig Gordon, Jordan Archer, Callum Paterson, James Forrest, Robert Snodgrass, Ryan Jack, Graeme Shinnie.

Albania: Thomas Strakosha, Egzon, Elseid Hysaj, Frederic Veseli (Enea Mihaj 90+1), Berat Xhimshiti, Ledian, Memushaj, Emanuele Ndoj (Rei Manaj 66), Sabien Lilaj, Taulant Xhaka, Bekim Balaj, Enis Gavazaj (Herdi Prenga 46).

Subs not used: Etrit Berisha, Alban Hoxha, Ansi Agolli, Migjen Basha, Mergim Mavraj, Bujar Lika, Ergys Kace, Sindri Guri, Jahmir Hyka.