GORDON Strachan hailed Scotland’s “best hour” of his managerial reign as they claimed their first Euro 2016 qualification win against Georgia at Ibrox.
The Tartan Army were worthy winners for a dominant display but only had a first-half own goal from Akaki Khubutia to show for their efforts.
After a spirited showing against world champions Germany went without reward in their opening Group D qualifier, victory was a must for the Scots to kick-start their campaign ahead of Tuesday’s trip to Warsaw to face a resurgent Poland.
But the fluidity and tempo of the performance for long periods was the most pleasing aspect for Strachan.
“That’s the best hour, 65 minutes, that we’ve had as a football team since I’ve been here,” hailed the 57-year-old, who succeeded Craig Levein in January 2013.
“I didn’t know the players could play that type of free-flowing football, with such ease, and break down a good side.”
Temuri Ketsbaia’s Georgia, ranked 110th in the world, suffered defeat to the Republic of Ireland last month and were seeking their first competitive away win in eight years.
But Scotland, backed by the majority of the 40,000 fans in west Glasgow, were the potent force from the outset despite struggling to break down the well-organised visitors.
Strachan made four changes from the defeat in Dortmund – which ended their six-match unbeaten run – as Scott Brown returned as captain ahead of Darren Fletcher, Shaun Maloney was preferred to Barry Bannan, fit-again Andy Robertson ousted Steven Whittaker and Steven Fletcher replaced the suspended Charlie Mulgrew.
Hull City left-back Robertson – on his competitive senior international debut – was a promising outlet down the left flank and regular provider for Sunderland striker Fletcher, who ended a 10-month goal drought last weekend with a double against Stoke.
Chances, though, were few and far between with James Morrison sending a volley over the crossbar from 30 yards after Shaun Maloney’s corner was cleared.
The Scots, playing at the home of Rangers in a competitive match for the first time in 15 years, patiently probed with the lions’ share of possession and their pressure eventually paid off just short of the half-hour mark.
Wigan’s Maloney, on his first competitive Scotland start since scoring the winner against Macedonia in September 2013, crashed a powerful half-volley towards goal and keeper Giorgi Loria could only push the ball against defender Khubutia with the ball spinning into the net.
The frustration was relieved as the merited breakthrough gave Scotland a platform to progress but Strachan’s side could not capitalise on several openings before half-time.
In-form Everton forward Steven Naismith took a heavy touch when played in on goal by Fletcher before Brown’s curling effort from the edge of the box was deflected inches wide and a teasing Robertson cross was headed over by Fletcher six yards out.
Their quest for a two-goal cushion continued to prove elusive after the interval with Fletcher and Naismith seeing efforts kept out by Loria.
Watford’s Ikechi Anya then had a half-hearted penalty shout ignored when claiming he was tripped by Murtaz Daushvili.
The nerve-shredding tension increased around Ibrox as Naismith and Robertson pulled shots harmlessly wide, much to the anguish of Strachan.
“For the first 25 minutes of the second half we were making chances again and their goalkeeper’s made some good saves,” he added.
“We got into areas we were pleased with and maybe just a little rusty with some of our shots, could’ve got them off earlier; maybe trying to walk the ball into the back of the net.”
And after failing to convert several opportunities – with Morrison the latest to be denied by Loria from eight yards – Scotland were forced to adopt a cautious approach to protect their lead in the closing stages.
Georgia’s skipper Jaba Kankava whistled a long-distance shot wide before the hosts escaped when Irakli Dzaria dragged wide on the half volley from 18 yards with the goal gaping.
“I don’t care who you are: if you’re only 1-0 up with 5/10 minutes to go, then it starts getting a bit hairy,” Strachan explained. “They’re throwing people forward. And, to that extent, I thought our two centre halves were absolutely fantastic.”
But Scotland stayed firm to hold on as their first home tie of the 10-game campaign ended in a slender victory, which ought to have been more emphatic.
Substitutes: McArthur (for Naismith ’80), C Martin (for S Fletcher ’90)
Booked: Morrison (33), Maloney (67)
Goals: Khubutia (28 og)
Substitutes: Okriashvili (for Kvirkvelia ’45), Dzaria (for Papava ’70), Chanturia (for Kazaishvili ’80)
Booked: Grigalava (48), Daushvili (53)
Referee: Miroslav Zelinka (Czech Republic) – 7/10