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5 of 009

Craig Mackail-Smith's goal enough for Scotland against Liechtenstein

Euro 2012 qualifiers
Liechtenstein 0
Scotland 1

Mackail-Smith 32

Ewan Murray at Rheinpark Stadium

Craig Levein and Scotland will have privately feared this qualifying finale as much as they will publicly relish it. A win here means, for Scotland, that the play-off equation is straightforward. And yet, it could hardly be more difficult.

Levein's team sit a point ahead of the Czech Republic heading towards Tuesday's final matches in their group. While Scotland travel to a meeting with Spain, the Czechs will face a Lithuania team who are, at best, a moderate lot.

Victory over the world and European champions will ensure a second-place berth for the Scots; for that, of course, read easier said than done.

"We are in a position where it is ours to lose," said Levein. "We are in a position that I would have taken at the start of the group. If we win on Tuesday, we are second, that's a fact."

And the chances of that? "There is nothing for us to fear," Levein said.

Scotland's showing here seemed typical. They should have beaten Liechtenstein by a greater score than 1-0 but a failure to support dominance with goals led to a nervous ending to the game for the visiting party.

Scotland will have nothing like the levels of possession in Alicante as they were permitted here. "We made it harder than it should have been," Levein conceded. "We had enough chances in the first half in particular to put the game to bed and, of course, when you don't get that second goal the opposition still have a degree of hope. But the way it worked out I'm thrilled for the boys, I'm thrilled for the supporters."

Craig Mackail-Smith was Levein's match-winner, the 27-year-old marking his first start and a decent performance with the goal which claimed the three points.

Scotland's campaign has generally seemed underwhelming. It is curious, then, that a play-off place remains attainable at this late stage. Perhaps such a scenario merely highlights the relative weakness of the section.

The prelude to this game hinted that matters may be turning in Scotland's favour. The unexpected recovery of their captain, Darren Fletcher, from a bout of tonsillitis added strength to the Scots' midfield here. A win for the Spanish against the Czech Republic on Friday night also permitted Scotland a chance to take play-off matters back into their own hands.

Liechtenstein survived a half-decent penalty claim inside five minutes. Mackail-Smith, collecting one of several fine early passes from Charlie Adam, felt he was fouled by Rony Hanselmann but nothing was given. Scotland's next two opportunities fell to Steven Naismith with the Rangers player heading narrowly wide before a poor, close-range attempt.

Naismith could – and arguably should – have claimed a hat-trick by midway through the opening period as he shot into the side-netting after rounding the home goalkeeper, Peter Jehle. Scotland had obviously sought an early goal; only wastefulness denied them it.

Just when edginess threatened to set in, Mackail-Smith earned the breakthrough his work rate had merited. Phil Bardsley was the unlikely architect, with a cross which found the Brighton forward's head. Jehle, who looked badly positioned, could only watch the ball loop over him.

The Scottish contingent cared little that the goal was made by a player born in Salford and scored by one who hails from Watford. Liechtenstein are not rated as the fourth worst international side in Europe because they make a habit of winning games in which they have fallen behind. Naismith appealed in vain for a penalty before the break – claiming his heels had been clipped – but Scotland had to settle for a one-goal lead at the break. If only for chances made, that margin should have been greater.

Bardsley nodded narrowly over the bar and failed to properly control a Barry Bannan pass as Scotland started the second period in search of that second goal.

By the hour mark, Liechtenstein were virtually non-existent as an attacking force. Yet Scottish horror stories of the past meant Levein was unlikely to relax. For the Scotland manager, securing victory as early as possible would almost certainly have allowed him to withdraw some of his more experienced players with rest and Tuesday in mind.

Ultimately, Levein was not permitted that safeguard; instead James Forrest and Don Cowie were introduced in a simple attempt to close the match out. Those replacements did not cure a lack of ruthlessness which had been apparent from Scotland throughout the game.

Naismith watched his latest headed attempt clawed away by Jehle, with the goalkeeper producing a superb save to turn Christophe Berra's subsequent effort wide. That proved irrelevant to Scotland claiming their sixth win in nine matches.

The Spanish stage is now set.

Taken from the Guardian/Observer

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