Scotland are off and running on the road that may just lead to Russia, sitting top of World Cup qualifying Group F after this 5-1 win in Malta.
“This time is our time” was the message sent out by the SFA in the build-up to the match. We’ll see about that.
The Tartan Army certainly hope so after a wait to reach a major finals that will be two decades’ old when the next World Cup starts in Moscow and St Petersburg in 2018.
This was certainly a decent start to the campaign despite a scare or two.
The Scots took the lead through a cross-shot from Robert Snodgrass on 10 minutes – the Hull man would go on to bag a hat-trick – before Malta equalised with a header from Alfred Effiong.
Chris Martin put Gordon Strachan’s men back ahead on 53 minutes then Snodgrass made it 3-1 from the spot.
Sub Steven Fletcher netted with a header on 78 minutes then Snodgrass bagged the match ball with a tap-in to make it 5-1.
Strachan didn’t play it safe with his selection as he made four changes to the side that started the 3-0 friendly defeat to France just before the Euros.
In came £13 million Fifer Oliver Burke, fresh from his move to RB Leipzig in Germany, and he was joined by Callum Paterson, Barry Bannan and lone frontman Martin. Darren Fletcher regained the captaincy after Scott Brown’s retirement from international football.
The Scots also knew the other group result before the kicked off, with England sneaking an injury-time 1-0 win in Slovakia, while Slovenia drew 2-2 in Lithuania.
That gave them a fighting chance of finishing the night as leaders so they had incentive aplenty.
The match was only a minute old when Burke burst into action for the Scots, earning a corner after skipping into the box.
Snodgrass then tried his luck from outside the box on six minutes, although the shot didn’t trouble keeper Andrew Hogg.
Former Dundee United man Andy Robertson came close still when he played one-twos with first Martin then Matt Ritchie but he was challenged as he tried to shoot.
A goal was coming, though, and it arrived just into the 10th minute.
Hogg made a pig’s ear of it as Snodgrass sent the ball to the back post only to see it float into the net to make it 1-0.
However, the lead lasted just four minutes.
It was a bad one to lose, with Gareth Scibberas’ cross from the right landing on the head of big Effiong, who scored after sneaking in between Grant Hanley and Russell Martin.
If the ball looked proverbially burst at that point it literally was on 22 minutes as Ukrainian referee Yevhen Aranovsky had to call for a replacement.
The new one was almost in the Malta net on 24 minutes but Hogg smothered a Snodgrass header.
Burke won a freekick on the left on 36 minutes and when Ritchie sent it over Hanley’s header just missed.
Robertson then came close with a drive but the Maltese almost had the last laugh of the first half when Andre Schembri stabbed the ball past.
Martin tried to bring the second period to life but his shot on 48 minutes was well over.
Burke was denied a penalty when he had his heels clipped by Malta’s Joseph Zerafa but the referee said no.
Scots keeper David Marshall then pulled off a point-bank save from Schembri but the flag was up for offside.
Scotland regained the lead on 53 minutes and Martin it was who calmed the nerves. It was a great ball over from the left from Ritchie – a gift to the on-loan Fulham frontman.
It was 3-1 and 11 versus 10 on 61 minutes when ref Aranovsky controversially awarded a penalty for an alleged foul on Martin from Caruana.
It looked a harsh one and it became even harsher when Caruana was sent off. All the commotion didn’t bother Snodgrass, who slammed the ball home from the spot.
Fletcher, who had replaced Martin, then wrapped things up on 78 minutes when he nodded home after a Ritchie cross was deflected his way.
With six minutes left, Snodgrass grabbed his third with a tap-in after Fletcher’s shot had come off the bar and rebounded to him.
Malta’s miserable night was complete when Luke Gambin was sent off for a lunge on Snodgrass in stoppage-time.
Scotland: Marshall, Paterson, Hanley, R. Martin, Robertson, D. Fletcher, Bannan, Burke (Forrest 66), Snodgrass, Ritchie (Anya 86), C. Martin (S. Fletcher 68). Subs not used: Gordon, Hamilton, Berra, Greer, Hutton, McGinn, McKay, Morrison, Naismith.
Malta: Hogg, Caruana, Zerafa, Sciberras, Agius, Fenech, Gambin, Schembri (Briffa 66), Borg, Scicluna (Camilleri 79), Effiong (Mifsud 89). Subs not used: Bonello, Baldacchino, Failla, Faruggia, Kristensen, Muscat.
Referee: Yevhen Aranovskiy (Ukraine).