Scotland’s World Cup hopes still alive after nervy win over Moldova but profligacy in front of goal remains a major issue
Steve Clarke’s side face Austria in a crucial World Cup qualifier in Vienna on Tuesday night.
However, the same old problem remains - our inability to turn chances into goals.
Five games into the campaign, the Scots already find themselves playing catch up in third spot having picked up two wins, two draws and one defeat to date.
Following a chastening defeat in Copenhagen last week, it will now take a heroic effort to stop runaway leaders Denmark – who are yet to concede a goal – from finishing top of Group F.
Realistically, Scotland’s best chance of reaching Qatar 2022 now is via the play-offs, but anything other than maximum points against Austria tomorrow night could see us kiss goodbye any hopes of securing a first World Cup finals place since 1998.
Only a second-placed finish will suffice after seeing our Nations League route ended by the Czech Republic.
Steve Clarke’s side will fly to Vienna knowing they must be more clinical in front of goal if and when opportunities fall their way.
The Scots can take heart from Austria poor post-Euros form which saw them suffer a 5-2 thrashing away to Israel.
Saturday’s encounter against Moldova – ranked 175th in the FIFA world rankings – proved another frustrating watch at times for the near 41,000 supporters in attendance.
Yes, granted a win is a win. However, the performance was well below-par and on another day stronger opponents could well have ended our qualification ambitions.
Scotland were expected to score minimum three or four goals against a team that were humbled 8-0 at the hands of the Danes and count just four European nations – Malta, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar and San Marino – as worse than themselves.
Head Coach Clarke made sweeping changes following the 2-0 loss in Denmark, with six players coming into the starting line-up. Right-back Nathan Patterson made his debut and striker Kevin Nisbet earned his first start up front.
The squad’s top scorer John McGinn returned after his Covid battle with Ryan Christie also drafted in to add more creativity to the forward line, spearheaded by Lyndon Dykes.
On paper, it looked a team more than capable of finding the net on a regular basis, but disappointingly it failed to materialise.
Instead, the profligate Scots staggered their way to three points with an evident lack of width in the final third remaining a serious cause for concern.
The game started well for Clarke’s men with the returning McGinn, whose driving presence was missed in Copenhagen, at the heart of some early Scottish flurries into the visitors’ penalty area.
Producing his trademark lung-bursting runs, the Aston Villa midfielder teed up full-backs Patterson and skipper Andy Robertson with early efforts but neither displayed the necessary composure required, blazing high and wide of the target.
The Scots’ promising start was rewarded in the 13th minute when debutant Patterson won back possession before playing a neat one-two with Nisbet and seeing his shot palmed away only as far as the lurking Dykes who tapped home the rebound – ending his 12-game international goal drought in the process.
An early breakthrough – just what the Tartan Army were looking for.
Many would have then expected the floodgates to open thereafter, and a routine win looked inevitable as Scotland continued to pin their opponents back inside their own half.
Dykes ariel presence was causing the Moldovan defence problems, while standout performer Billy Gilmour – on his first Hampden start – impressed on only his fifth cap.
Looking very composed and always available to receive the ball, the youngster swung in an excellent corner in the 27th minute which the unmarked Kieran Tierney should’ve scored from.
Moments later, tenacious play from Gilmour saw him drive forward and slide a perfectly weighted pass through for Robertson, but once again the Liverpool star fired over the crossbar.
Gilmour had a powerful low shot well saved by the busy Cristian Avram in what was a one-sided first half.
Then came a period of the game which many people will have easily erased from their memory. The tempo dropped, and with an hour played it was clear fresh legs were needed to inject more energy into the performance.
Hanley headed over from a corner, Nisbet stung the palms of Avram and then Gilmour watched on in agony as he passed up a glorious opportunity from just a few yards out.
It was becoming a recurring theme and even the introduction of Southampton’s Che Adams after 65 minutes in place of Nisbet couldn’t aid Scotland’s fortunes.
The striker did pose a fresh threat and saw his deflected effort from 20-yards fly inches wide of the near post.
But as the minutes ticked away, it was clear Moldova remained in with a shout of taking something from the contest.
You could sense the grumbles around Hampden Park from the Tartan Army as gilt-edged chance after chance fell by the wayside.
In the best move of the game, Christie linked well with substitutes Callum McGregor and David Turnbull but just when a cool head was required the playmaker failed to hit the target.
Nervous tension once again shrouded the National Stadium. We should all know well enough by now that as a nation we never like to do things the easy way.
But our conversion rate is simply nowhere near good enough. Scotland created 41 chances at this summer’s European Championships and had just one goal to show for it.
Until we manage to unearth another Kenny Dalglish or Denis Law, our struggles in front of goal are likely to remain a significant problem.
At the halfway point of this qualifying campaign, Clarke doesn’t seem overlay phased by his side’s failure to capitalise on chances, which could well relax any pressure on his squad ahead of Tuesday’s crucial encounter in Vienna.
However, just how you go about breaking that burden is anyone’s guess. Who else can Clarke turn too in terms of striking options? The truth is our lack of firepower up front remains a major headache.
Among all the pessimism, one positive Scotland supporters are beginning to see under Clarke’s time at the helm is the emergence of some of the country’s brightest talents.
Billy Gilmour looks to have a massive future on the international stage ahead of him, while the likes of David Turnbull, Nathan Patterson and Lewis Ferguson have all made their senior breakthroughs.
Here’s hoping many more youngsters will follow in their footsteps in the months and years ahead but on behalf of all Scotland supporters, can there please be a new striking sensation among them?