THE Tartan Army partied to the Zorba the Greek theme tune on the holiday isle of Cyprus as they watched Scotland put in a smashing performance after an early lucky break to move into third place in Group I. While the hospitality in this part of the world is renowned, this was a comparatively parsimonious performance from a Scotland side who had previously shipped ten goals in away matches against Russia, Belgium and Kazakhstan.

Cyprus may only be the 93rd best team in the Fifa rankings but goals from Ryan Christie – his first for his country – and John McGinn’s fifth in five games were enough to leapfrog their hosts and strengthen the impression that Steve Clarke is building something of substance ahead of March’s Euro 2020 play-offs.

You couldn’t exactly blame the hosts if they felt their Scottish visitors had overstayed their welcome a little by the end. Not only did they have their chances to earn a share of the spoils here when Ioannis Costa headed off the stanchion, Fotis Papoulis blazed over , and Grigoris Kastanos couldn’t hit the target with one last free-kick, they were dealt a huge injustice within just seven minutes, when Giorgos Efrem’s shot bounced over the line and back out off the underside of the bar. The Scotland fans behind that goal welcomed the lucky break as some kind of long delayed payback for Geoff Hurst in 1966.


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Scotland were made to work hard for their victory but the three points were made more impressive considering who wasn’t here. The build-up, after all, was all about the call-offs and withdrawals which robbed Clarke of the services of star men Kieran Tierney, Andy Robertson, Scott McTominay and Ryan Fraser, but there was little sign of apathy at kick-off as a 3,000- strong travelling army alighted in Nicosia for what could be construed as a meaningless match. They outnumbered the home support at the GSP stadium, even if Cyprus started a point above us in the race for third place.

It may or may not be his first-choice selection when the play-offs tick round in March but Clarke was delighted to welcome Steven Naismith up front for the first time under his tenure, handing the 33-year-old the armband as he entered the roll of honour for his 50th cap. At the age of 28, there was a first start too for Motherwell’s Declan Gallagher, completing the rehabilitation of a man who wasted a year of his professional career in prison after being found guilty of assault with a baseball bat. After weeks and months of controversy over an injury picked up on previous international duty, Clarke had the first chance to assess Ryan Jack in his preferred midfield role.

The new faces brought a harder edge to this Scotland team and it wasn’t surprised to see Naismith and Jack both scrapping away for possession within seconds of the referee’s whistle as Scotland forced an early corner. The Hearts man, who twice spurned approaches from Clarke to take him to first West Brom and then Kilmarnock, repaid his manager’s faith by organising from the front and winning countless free kicks and had generally run himself into the ground when he was removed on the hour after an awkward fall on halfway.

With Tuesday’s trip to Belgium still to come, Cyprus had fared better than us in their meetings with the big guns of this section. When they made an enterprising start, for once Scotland found luck on their side. When some crisp passing in the seventh minute has bypassed our midfield far too easily, Efrem found himself one-on-one with Scott McKenna on the edge of the box. His twist from left to right having left the hulking Aberdeen defender on his posterior, the one-time Rangers starlet fired in a strike which beat Marshall and bounced down off the underside of the bar. Replays showed the ball clearly bounced over the line before spinning out for a corner but Austrian referee Harald Lechner awarded the corner.


READ MORE: Cyprus 1 Scotland 2: How the Scots rated in Nicosia win

Under the unwritten laws of football, the team who suffers tends to have the injustice compounded. And so it proved when Scotland opened the scoring just five minutes later. This time it was Scotland who passed their way through the midfield, Old Firm rivals Jack and Callum McGregor both involved before McGinn used his body cleverly to spin his man in midfield. The ball was fed to Ryan Christie who, with the defence backing off him, curled a beauty into Urko Pardo’s top corner from 20 yards out. It was the Celtic player’s first goal for his country, a moment he will always cherish, yet one which might have come against San Marino last month had John McGinn got the merest of touches.

David Marshall palmed a Pieros Sotiriou strike away and Christie saw another effort saved but it was mainly long range stuff. McGregor got a bizarre booking for kicking an errant ball off the match ball but Scotland were happy enough to get in at half-time 1-0 up. Happier certainly than their hosts, whose manager Ran Ben Shimon was carded for saying something out of turn. This Scotland team have a habit of losing soft goals at the start of the second period and there was a repeat performance here. McKenna conceded a soft free kick, the ball was partially cleared and there was no denying Efrem this time as his volley flew high into David Marshall’s top corner.

Much like in the last meeting between these two sides at Hampden, when Scotland needed a response it was immediate. Some clever play down the left from James Forrest allowed the excellent Greg Taylor to cross, and his delivery was met by John McGinn, the Aston Villa steering in his fifth goal in five games for his country from close range. With Oli McBurnie and Oli Burke on to pose a threat on the break, and Michael Devlin on to shore things up, those last few minutes became a rearguard action but time ran out on this Cyprus side. Scotland have not progressed so far under Clarke for anyone to turn their noses up at a victory like this.

Cyprus 1 (Efrem 47), Scotland 2 (Christie 12, McGinn 53)