THE scoring opportunity that John McGinn headed wide from just a few yards out in the second-half of the Qatar 2022 play-off semi-final against Ukraine back at Hampden back in June proved costly for Scotland.

They slumped to a painful 3-1 defeat and once again missed out the World Cup finals.

But McGinn, handed the captain’s armband in the absence of the injured Andy Robertson, last night atoned for his uncharacteristic howler in some style in the Nations League game against the same opponents at the same venue.

The Aston Villa midfielder scored in the same net that he had failed to find three months ago to help secure an important victory which increases the national team’s chances of topping Group B1 and clinching a Euro 2024 play-off spot.

Steve Clarke’s men dominated Oleksandr Petrakov’s charges from start to finish. But they passed up a chance after chance until McGinn struck with 20 minutes remaining. It was a sweet moment for the skipper and took his tally for his country to 14.

Lyndon Dykes added a brace after coming on to ensure that Scotland, who now take on the Republic of Ireland in Glasgow on Saturday, leapfrogged their rivals into top spot in the section. They can go into their next outing with confidence after this assured all-round showing and morale-boosting result. 

Nobody saw the Scotland starting line-up coming. Clarke switched from a back three to a back four with Kieran Tierney playing in his favoured left back role and Nathan Patterson deployed on the right. Jack Hendry and Scott McKenna formed the partnership in the centre of the rearguard and Scott McTominay moved forward into midfield alongside Callum McGregor.

Changing to a 4-2-3-1 formation allowed the manager to field McGinn, Stuart Armstrong and Ryan Christie just off lone striker Che Adams. Would having more attacking players involved from kick-off lead to more goals? The home supporters in the sell-out crowd were hopeful it would.

Oleksandr Zinchenko, who has justified the £30m that Arsenal paid Manchester City to secure his services this summer and then some, was a big loss for the visitors. But Petrakov could still call on Taras Stepanenko, Mykhaylo Mudryk and Andriy Yarmalenko. So they were not exactly short of quality or experience. 

Tierney was a huge miss in the play-off semi-final. He quickly made his presence felt last night. He unleashed Adams down the left flank with a perfectly-weighted through ball in the 11th minute. His team mate cut inside Valeriy Bondar and got an attempt on target. But he shot straight at Anatoliy Trubin.

That positive passage of play, though, set the tone for the match. Scotland launched wave after wave of attack and were unfortunate not to put one of the scoring opportunities they created in the final third away.

Christie squared across the face of goal and Adams came within inches of turning it in. Patterson got forward and saw an effort deflected wide. Both McGinn and Christie went close with headers. And Armstrong cut inside and tested Trubin. It was an impressive start. The new system seemed to be working well.

All that said, a lack of composure up front prevented the national team from forging ahead. They took the wrong option too often and the execution of their final pass left much to be desired at times. Their lack of a cutting edge kept their rivals on level terms. 

Ukraine did threaten on the counter. But Craig Gordon was never seriously threatened. McTominay, Patterson, McKenna, Hendry and Tierney all got back to cover when required. Hendry gave away a free-kick just outside his penalty box when he brought down Mudryk. Ruslan Malinovskyi, though, fired straight at the defensive wall.

Scotland were dealt a blow when Patterson went down injured and had to be stretchered off. It is to be hoped the Everton man is not seriously hurt and can build on the progress he has made at club level of late. But Aaron Hickey, who has been outstanding for Brentford in recent weeks, was not a bad replacement.

Ukraine should have been reduced to 10 men a minute before half-time when Bondar body checked Adams as he burst forward. It was a straight red card. But for reasons best known to himself Italian referee Maurizio Mariani thought otherwise. The offending defender only received a yellow. It was a poor decision.

The opening exchanges of the second-half were far cagier than the first and Scotland did not control proceedings to the same degree. But Armstrong could have broken the deadlock twice after being supplied by first Tierney and then McTominay. He was denied by the keeper and shelled over the crossbar.

Adams got on the end of two McGinn crosses from the right in the 63rd minute and headed against the crossbar and at the keeper. The forward turned provider five minutes later when he chipped to Armstrong. The midfielder nodded past the right post. The fans were loving what they were witnessing. But would their heroes’ profligacy come back to haunt them?

The goal finally came with 20 minutes remaining and it was, surprise, surprise, McGinn who provided it. The ball broke to him in the area and he turned Bondar and slotted into the bottom right corner. The stadium erupted with joy and relief. 

Clarke put on Ryan Fraser and Dykes for Armstrong and Adams respectively and the replacements combined to set up the second and third goals. The striker got on the end of two pinpoint corner kicks and headed beyond Trubin.