Scotland picked up their second UEFA Nations League victory away in northern Albania on Saturday evening with a convincing 4-0 victory at the Loro Boriçi Stadium.
Despite all the pre-match concerns, this game was about as one-sided and comfortable as Scotland could've hoped for, rounded off in stylish fashion with the fourth goal from James Forrest at the end of some stunning build-up play.
Scotland's victory pushes them on to six points, avoiding relegation and putting them in sight of claiming top spot with victory over Israel at home on Tuesday.
Story of the match
It wasn't quite do-or-die for Scotland in Shkodër on Saturday evening but it sure felt like it for the Tartan Army and probably for an under-pressure Alex McLeish too. The Scots headed into the match amidst a parade of call-offs, no less than nine, and little optimism after a tepid start to the UEFA Nations League and an uninspired beginning to the second reign of McLeish at the helm.
This new-look, depleted Scotland side, of whom no fewer than eight of the starting eleven had over ten caps, started off brightly and energetically against their hosts who came into the contest in desperate need of victory.
It was AFC Bournemouth's Ryan Fraser who created the first opportunity for Scotland after just a couple of minutes. A defensive mistake allowing him to advance on the Albanian goal only for his pass to Steven Fletcher, a surprise recall to the side, to come up a little short.
Despite the fast start, it was Albania who came closest first. Ledian Memushaj with a cross to the back post for Myrto Uzuni but the Lokomotiva striker couldn't quite stretch enough to get a shot on goal. It was a warning for the Scots nonetheless.
A few minutes later though and the game was turned on its head. The opening goal coming for Scotland after a driving run from Ryan Fraser and a lovely curled finish into the corner. His first international goal.
Less than ten minutes after that and Albania were down to ten. The captain, Mërgim Mavraj, was initially booked for a poor challenge on Ryan Christie before eventually being shown a straight red. Replays would show a headbutt from the defender which more than justified his dismissal.
A game in which they led swung further in Scotland's favour following that decision and while the visitors were comfortable, the threat of Albania and especially Eros Grezda, who plays his club football in Glasgow for Rangers, may have been a cause for concern. He certainly continued to cause problems for the booked Callum Paterson out wide.
Those concerns were eased on the cusp of half-time. A flurry of half-chances had come and gone for Scotland before a free-kick from Stuart Armstrong crashed into the Albanian wall and prompted Russian referee Vladislav Bezborodov to point to the spot. Steven Fletcher from twelve yards did the rest to make it 2-0 at the break.
For Albania to have any chance of mounting a comeback, they needed an early second half goal and it was Myrto Uzuni who came closest to getting it for Shqiponjat with his shot flashing just wide of the post and providing some hope that perhaps they weren't quite done in this game.
Step forward James Forrest to settle the matter in the fifty-fifth minute. He is a man in form at Celtic and his new-found confidence this season was in full display with a bursting run through the middle, ending with the ball in the back of the net despite the best efforts of Etrit Berisha. A first international goal for the 27-year-old.
Albanian chances were still few and far between. It was Grezda with the next shot off target but the Scots were creating four or five good opportunities in response. Stuart Armstrong would force a save from the goalkeeper with a shot from outside the box before Forrest looked to have scored his second of the night only to be prevented by the slightest touch from David Bates in an offside position.
Forrest though, would not be denied for much longer. Scotland certainly saved the best for last with a beautiful goal that wouldn't have looked out of place in Paris, Berlin or Rio. A lack of cohesion and a team in disarray were the pre-match cries but this was a goal that embodied togetherness. Started from the back, a Fraser cutback to Forrest, a sublime first touch and an even better finish that put the deserved gloss on an outstanding team move.
With twenty minutes still left to play, the Albanian fans could've been forgiven for watching the rest of this game through their fingers. It could've got worse too as Manchester United's midfielder Scott McTominay struck the crossbar and a wonderful cross from Andy Robertson deserved a finish at the end but alas, the final minutes ticked down at 4-0 and Scotland... yes, Scotland... created the unusual image of the team passing the ball around to cries of "ole, ole, ole" from the travelling support.
What a difference 90 minutes make.
Takeaways from the match
The ancient city of Shkodër has the quirky distinction of lying in between Lake Shkodër and the Albanian Alps and before this game, it felt like Scotland were scaling a mountain when trying to navigate what seemed like a relatively simple Nations League group.
The uninspiring performances, the multiple call-offs before the game and the lack of faith in the manager at the helm. There has been a real lack of optimism and enthusiasm amongst the Scottish support in the weeks leading up to this game but Scotland responded in the best way they could.
Albania were very poor but this was a stellar Scotland away performance and that is not something that can be said very often. It wasn't just a victory, it was a crushing, convincing victory, full of exciting football that gives cause for optimism once more. They certainly scaled that mountain this evening and if they continue to play like this, there is no reason why they can't stay at the peak.
It was a performance from Albania on home soil that sums up the decline in the national team from their ultimate high of reaching Euro 2016 in France.
Their opening night victory at home to Israel was the best possible start for Christian Panucci but the Italian defender, who broke Scottish hearts in 2007, has come under increased pressure after a string of terrible performances and tonight could see a measure of revenge from the Scots as it looks like the end of the road for his managerial reign.
Albania have some exciting players. Grezda looked threatening for most of the night, Taulant Xhaka is a mainstay at FC Basel and is one of the most important players in the team while Elseid Hysaj, though missing tonight, is on the books of Napoli in the Serie A but for the most part, this side looks bereft of quality and have been outperformed in their last three Nations League matches, as well as looking average at home in a friendly with Jordan that ended goalless in October.
Some of that blame will undoubtedly have to fall on Panucci's shoulders, his decision to play Etrit Berisha, who looked less than convincing in both games vs. Scotland, instead of Thomas Strakosha is up for debate for example, but some of that blame will fall on a group of players that didn't really seem to play for their manager. Perhaps under new management, Albania can thrive but there is much work to be done for the Red & Blacks.
All roads lead to Glasgow
So, after the initial Nations League confusion and four matches crammed into three international windows in the last four months, the final objective could not be clearer for Scotland and Israel as they reconvene at Hampden Park on Tuesday evening in Glasgow.
Both sides are locked on six points with Israel topping the group by virtue of the head-to-head ruling. Their 2-1 victory over the Scots in Haifa has them in pole position and needing to escape with only a point to finish in top spot of Group 1.
Scotland on the other hand, must win. Three points and they will finish top of the group. A home match and everything is in their hands, this is exactly what Scotland wanted. Their result in Israel in October was a disappointment but they can right all those wrongs by turning over the Israelis and claiming a play-off spot in the process.
Stand out players
With so many call-offs, opportunity knocked for more than a few in the Scotland starting eleven on Saturday and everyone answered the call in dark blue.
Fraser, inexplicably, had only four caps before tonight against Albania but produced a performance of the highest quality as he scored the opening goal and assisted for the fourth. It is a wonder that he is not selected more often but given his performance, his selection should not be in doubt again.
Forrest has consistently produced in a Celtic shirt in the last season and a half but has struggled to replicate that form with Scotland. Tonight was the night he managed to do just that. He was a driving force in the side and deserved his two goals. His touch and finish for his second and Scotland's fourth were of the highest quality.
Callum McGregor delivered a performance that is simply to be expected from him lately while his Celtic team-mate Christie seized his opportunity and was a bundle of energy throughout, much like much of this Scotland squad.
As for Albania, Grezda was the only player making things happen although he was helped by the yellow card issued to Paterson early in the match. He is someone who will definitely feature for Albania in the future.
By the time Euro 2020 comes around, during which Hampden Park hosts four matches, Scotland will have gone without an appearance at a major international tournament for twenty-two years. There is still much work to be done before they can end that drought but after tonight's performance, victory at their famous old stadium on Tuesday will go some way to bringing back the belief that can do just that.