THE preoccupation with Scotland’s porous defence and what, if anything, can be done to shore it up has meant another of the national team’s major failings, the inability to put the ball in the back of the net, has been rather overlooked in recent weeks.

But if the country are to successfully negotiate the Euro 2020 play-offs in March and end a wait to reach the final of a major tournament that stretches all the way back to France ’98 then their manager Steve Clarke must address it every bit as urgently.

The fans who headed along to Hampden last night for the qualifier against San Marino were rewarded for their support with six goals; John McGinn got a hat-trick and Lawrence Shankland, Stuart Findlay and Stuart Armstrong all weighed in with one apiece.

Huge questions, though, would have been asked of Clarke and his players if they hadn’t romped to a comfortable win given the standard of the opposition.

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Queen’s Park could probably have banged in a few against an enclaved microstate who have never won a competitive international in their entire history, have a population smaller than Airdrie, last scored over two years ago and are bottom of the FIFA world rankings.

Still, it is to be hoped the result gives Scotland’s players some much-needed confidence in the final third going into the group matches with Cyprus away and Kazakhstan at home next month and then the play-offs after that.

Because their play up front during a catastrophe-strewn, demoralising, failed and thoroughly miserable campaign has been every bit as poor and just as costly as it has been at the back.

Disregarding the San Marino matches, only one forward scored in their six qualifying games against Kazakhstan, Belgium, Cyprus and Russia. Oliver Burke bagged a last-gasp winner against Cyprus at Hampden back in June. They have, too, only netted three times in total.

The meetings with Belgium, officially the best team on the planet, and Russia, World Cup quarter-finalists last year, were difficult admittedly. But they are concerning statistics all the same.

In fairness to Burke, Oliver McBurnie, Marc McNulty, Matt Phillips, Johnny Russell and Shankland, who have all had spells leading the line, the opportunities have hardly been plentiful.

That said, Burke and McBurnie could and should still have done far better in their outings. The Alaves and Sheffield United men have been sold for combined transfer fees of £48 million during their careers.

In the Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday night Scotland only managed to get two shots on target during the course of the 90 minutes and neither of them troubled Russian goalkeeper Guilherme Marinato. That has been a familiar tale since March.

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The absence of both Leigh Griffiths and Steven Naismith has been keenly felt by both Alex McLeish and his successor Steve Clarke. Both are proven goalscorers at international level and would have given the country far more of a cutting edge in attack had they been available for selection.

Shankland, the Dundee United striker, only played last week due to Griffiths, McBurnie and Naismith all being out. Bringing in a Ladbrokes Championship player raised eyebrows and was seen by some of being indicative of the sorry state of the Scottish game.

Shankland, though, did well with the limited service he received after coming on after half-time in Moscow to make his international debut. He did even better last night, albeit against limited rivals, and contributed a classic poacher’s goal.

Would it be the worst thing to give him an extended run to see what he can do? Clarke, and many others in the game, believe the 24-year-old is capable of performing at a far higher level than the second tier. It is unlikely that he will remain at Tannadice if he keeps scoring as frequently as he has been. He has been on target for his club on 15 occasions in just 13 games in the 2019/20 campaign to date.

Shankland may not, in these days of false nines and shadow strikers, be particularly sexy. He has definite limitations, like a lack of pace, which have perhaps, thus far at least, made bigger clubs both in his homeland and down south reluctant to move for him. But he is a good old-fashioned centre forward. It is not the worst thing in the world to be. He is certainly in form and full of confidence.

Clarke indicated that he will feature again. “I thought he was good,” he said. “There was a lot of good hold—up play. He linked the play well. He gets the ball in and links it.

“Listen, Lawrence is a goalscorer, I said that when I brought him into the squad. He has impressed working with the group and I am pleased that he has got a goal on his full debut.”

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That strike meant he was the first player from outside the top flight to score for Scotland in a competitive international since Tommy Ring of Clyde scored against England at Wembley way back in 1957.

I am of the opinion that Burke and McBurnie are both well worth persevering with despite the underwhelming showings they have produced. Neither of them could have been accused of not putting in a powerful shift whenever they have donned the dark blue. If they can mature and adapt to the demands of international football then they can become potent weapons.

Lawrence Shankland, the Ballieston boy who worked in a factory that produced plumbing parts when he played alongside Andy Robertson at Queen’s Park earlier in his career, might not be able to plug Scotland’s leaky rearguard, but he can certainly sink a few teams with his predatory instincts and finishing prowess.