James Forrest’s hat-trick powers Scotland into League B

Celtic striker put Israel to the sword to book his side a Euro 2020 playoff place

Scotland’s James Forrest (centre) celebrates scoring his side’s second goal of the game with Stuart Armstrong (left) and Ryan Christie during the Nations League win over Israel. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Scotland’s James Forrest (centre) celebrates scoring his side’s second goal of the game with Stuart Armstrong (left) and Ryan Christie during the Nations League win over Israel. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

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Scotland 3 Israel 2

That the Nations League carries greater significance than the friendly matches it replaced hardly requires debate. The sense that this event became wholly relevant for the future and reputation of Alex McLeish was also plain to see.

McLeish, for now, has enjoyed the last laugh over his many detractors. Scotland’s progression from the group stage at the expense of Albania and Israel may not look momentous, but in context it is wholly important to their manager. This win over Israel was ultimately merited, if belatedly panic-ridden. Perhaps it was ever thus.

Scotland’s canter in Albania on Saturday had offered impetus to a McLeish regime which had been thoroughly unconvincing until that point. Comprehensive defeat to Israel earlier in the Nations League campaign was just one tale of woe. Yet Saturday’s 4-0 success clearly was not sufficient to reinvigorate the Scotland support; tens of thousands of empty seats were once again a dismal feature.

Also ominously familiar was Scotland’s lame start. In a match where only victory was an acceptable outcome and the starting XI was the same as just days earlier, the home side opened up as if sleepwalking. The vim and vigour so evident at the weekend – albeit against a dreadful Albania side – had vanished. Israel capitalised on the tepid approach to claim an early advantage.

It was bad enough for McLeish that Beram Kayal was given one opportunity to shoot from 25 yards, such was the lack of pressure on the ball from his defence or midfield, with Callum McGregor’s uncertainty particularly glaring. That the former Celtic midfielder took a second touch before curling the ball beyond Allan McGregor was inexplicable from Scotland’s point of view. Albeit the finish itself was first class, Kayal was visibly caught between wild celebration and not believing the generosity of his opposition.

It took Scotland 21 first-half minutes to produce a positive touch. Steven Fletcher narrowly failed to connect with a Stuart Armstrong cross, with McGregor almost atoning for his earlier indiscretion in perfect style. Instead, the midfielder’s long-range, half-volley was clawed away by Ariel Harush.

This improved spell did not prevent Israel from creating a wonderful chance. Munas Dabbur was only inches away from connecting with a whipped cross from Eran Zahavi, with only a touch needed to beat the stranded McGregor. Hampden’s precious few breathed once more.

Forrest scores his and Scotland’s second. Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters
Forrest scores his and Scotland’s second. Photo: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Those in the stands soon celebrated. James Forrest, fresh from two goals in Albania, seized upon the rebound from an Armstrong shot to slam home. They had parity they just about deserved.

Better was to come for McLeish. A swift counterattack, in which Ryan Christie performed brilliantly, resulted in Forrest being played in 18 yards from goal. The winger again made no mistake, thereby completing a first-half turnaround which had looked so improbable.

The second half’s first 15 minutes illustrated Scotland’s problem perfectly – whether to stick or twist. Israel’s defence was considerably more ropy than robust, yet the visitors carried a threat when on the break. Scotland’s game management challenge was whether to chase a third goal or believe a one-goal lead would suffice.

Forrest answered the dilemma the first time. Ryan Fraser was the architect of goal number three, with a jink into the penalty area from the left flank. The Bournemouth player passed to Scotland’s man of the moment, who finished low beyond Harush.

It seemed vaguely unfair to Forrest that a three-goal individual haul had occurred for Scotland so recently; Robert Snodgrass claimed a hat-trick in Malta just two years ago.

The prospect of a nerveless finish for the Scots was shattered by Zahavi and their own incompetence. In a scene similar to Israel’s opener, when closing down looked an alien concept, Scotland allowed Zahavi far more time and space than was sensible, this time on the edge of the penalty area. Zahavi lashed a fierce drive into the net, thereby affording Israel unlikely hope. One more chance duly arrived, McGregor saving expertly from Tomer Hemed. Mission, such a crucial one, accomplished for McLeish. – Guardian service

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