- Hull City’s Robert Snodgrass scores hat-trick
- Malta have two men sent off in second-half
- Scotland sit top of Group F after matchday one
- Gordon Strachan pleased with team’s mental strength
ROBERT Snodgrass scored a hat-trick as Scotland made the perfect start to their 2018 World Cup qualification campaign with a convincing victory over nine-man Malta.
The Hull City winger, who missed all of the Euro 2016 qualifiers through injury, opened the scoring after nine minutes with a cross-cum-shot before Malta striker Alfred Effiong headed the hosts level soon after.
Surprise starter Chris Martin stroked home Matt Ritchie’s fine cross to restore the lead and Snodgrass converted a penalty following the controversial dismissal of Jonathan Caruana for fouling Martin as the last man.
Substitute Steven Fletcher added a fourth before Snodgrass slotted in after Fletcher hit the crossbar to complete his treble and cap a memorable evening for him and the Tartan Army at the Ta’Qali National Stadium.
Malta also had Luke Gambin dismissed late on for kicking out at Snodgrass as Scotland took control to clinch a vital win and top Group F after matchday one ahead of England, who needed an injury-time goal to beat Slovakia 1-0 earlier on Sunday.
In what was probably their easiest away game of the campaign on paper, the Tartan Army delivered the goods and passed the first step of overcoming the disappointment of being the only home nation to fail to qualify for Euro 2016 with flying colours.
However, although Strachan was delighted to begin the road to Russia 2018 with a comfortable win, it was another topsy-turvy evening for Scotland which wasn’t truly reflected in the final outcome.
With Celtic’s Scott Brown announcing his international retirement last month, West Brom’s Darren Fletcher returned to captain a side which contained Hearts’ Callum Paterson and teenager Oliver Burke, who made their senior competitive debuts.
Scotland encouraged their 4,500 travelling fans with a bright start, as 19-year-old Burke – who became the country’s most expensive player last week – showing his intent to make an impact while Malta keeper Andrew Hogg rushed off his line to block from Robertson.
The resulting corner was only half-cleared to Snodgrass, who cut inside on the right wing and hung a cross which looped over Hogg and underneath the crossbar to give the Scots a ninth-minute lead.
The goal should have settled any nerves but Malta responded four minutes later when Gareth Sciberras crossed for Effiong to get in front of Paterson and head into the top corner.
Scotland should have been back in front when Paterson’s cross found Snodgrass unmarked eight yards out but he headed straight at Hogg.
The visitors, despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession, found a Maltese side who hadn’t lost by more than a single goal in any of their previous six home games difficult to break down.
Aside from Burke’s dazzling running ability, Scotland showed little sign of getting in behind but Grant Hanley headed his Newcastle team-mate Ritchie’s free-kick wide and Robertson curled wide of the target just before half-time.
Hull’s newest recruit David Marshall, preferred to Craig Gordon in goal, had to be alert early after the break before the Tartan Army regained their lead when an excellent Ritchie cross was converted by Martin, making only his third international start.
The turning point was the penalty awarded by Ukrainian referee Yevhen Aranovsky, when there looked to be little if any contact as Caruana chased Martin into the six-yard box while Fulham’s on-loan Derby striker stretched to reach Robertson’s cross.
Snodgrass took full advantage to send Hogg the wrong way and give Scotland the platform to put the result beyond doubt.
Indeed, it got worse for the hosts as Sheffield Wednesday striker Fletcher met Ritchie’s deflected centre to guide a header home and could have scored a second when rounding Hogg to dink off the crossbar.
But Snodgrass got his reward for not giving up to calmly finish from close range, and record only a second competitive hat-trick in 47 years for Scotland.
The former Leeds man was the victim of a two-footed foul by Barnet winger Gambin, who saw red in stoppage time – yet it didn’t spoil a good night’s work for Scotland, who will be looking for more of the same against Lithuania at Hampden Park next month.
Malta: Hogg, Caruana, Agius, Borg, Scicluna (Camilleri 79′), Fenech, Sciberras, Gambin, Zerafa, Schembri (Briffa 66′), Effiong (Mifsud 89′).
Unused subs: Bonello (GK), Failla, Baldacchino, Farrugia, Kristensen, Muscat.
Goals: Effiong (13′)
Booked: Fenech (56′), Effiong (61′)
Sent-off: Caruana (60′), Gambin (90+1′)
Scotland: Marshall, Paterson, R Martin, Hanley, Robertson, D Fletcher (c), Bannan, Snodgrass, O Burke (Forrest 66′), Ritchie (Anya 86′), C Martin (S Fletcher 68′).
Unused subs: Gordon (GK), Hamilton (GK), Hutton, Greer, Berra, McGinn, Morrison, McKay, Naismith.
Goals: Snodgrass (9′, 61′ pen, 84′), C Martin (53′), S Fletcher (78′)
Referee: Yevhen Aranovsky (Ukraine) – 7/10
Assistant Referees: Oleksandr Voytyuk and Serhiy Bekker (Ukraine)
Fourth Official: Anatoliy Zhabchenko (Ukraine)
Scotland manager Gordon Strachan: “Winning was all we had to do. We like to try and perform, obviously. We got too strung out after 20 minutes but we sorted it out in the second half. At 1-1, it’s not easy to play in a situation like that. Nerves, stress, and a lack of fitness take over and you wonder if you might end up on the end of a historic result. They gave Italy a good game here, so you know it’s not going to be easy. Our ability has shown and our mental strength has shown as well. We’re lucky we’ve got a bunch of lads who can deal with the stress that manifests because of that goal [Malta’s equaliser]. A lot of teams don’t have that.”
Scotland winger Robert Snodgrass: “On a personal level, to score three goals is a great achievement. It was a brilliant result for us.”
Scotland striker Chris Martin: “I was surprised to find out this morning I was starting and it was nice to repay some of the faith with the goal. I maybe could have had another one but all in all a very positive start to the campaign.”
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