Scotland usurped Israel at the top on Tuesday evening at Hampden Park in Glasgow in the UEFA Nations League. A stellar showing from James Forrest led the Scots to a nervy 3-2 victory in the south side of the city.
This was a game full of tension - of which this stadium is more than used to when it comes to those in dark blue. Israel were in front early, threatening to end Scottish dreams before a rousing comeback, complete without the late heartbreak that this old place has seen all too many times before too.
The victory wins Group 1 of League C in the Nations League for Scotland, promotion to League B for the next edition of this tournament and ensures they will meet Finland on home soil in the play-off semi-final in March 2020 - unless either team qualifies via the regular route next year.
Story of the match
Scotland, by virtue of their 4-0 win out in Albania on Saturday evening, knew they simply needed to beat Israel at home to ensure they finished in top spot in the sixth and final match of the group.
A defeat against the Albanians would've potentially offered up a six-way tie at the conclusion of tonight's match and also thrown up a whole host of permutations. Scotland don't normally like to keep things simple, only needing victory was a refreshing change indeed.
This game had the sort of slow beginning that you would expect from a ninety minutes that had the hopes of two nations resting on it's shoulders. That was until the ninth minute when Brighton midfielder Beram Kayal decided to light up the city that he used to call home with a beautiful curling strike beyond Allan McGregor that handed the Israelis the perfect start.
Scotland were present on the park for the opening twenty minutes but it seemed like empty jerseys only as Israel knocked the ball around with confidence and threatened to add to their lead with star players Eran Zahavi and Moanes Dabbur lurking with intent.
The home side woke from their slumber with Ryan Fraser and Stuart Armstrong combining to provide the urgency that had been so lacking, finding Steven Fletcher. The Sheffield Wednesday frontman was soon dispossessed allowing Callum McGregor to pick up the scraps and fire a stinging shot at goal that was matched by Ariel Harush and tipped around the post.
The Scots continued to crank up the pressure as the half progressed. Ryan Christie and Scott McKenna both had efforts in attack blocked by the Israel defence before a flash of skill from Forrest offered him an opportunity to shoot that was also blocked at the last.
In the sort of sublime form he is in, Forrest was not to be denied much longer. Armstrong opened the padlock on the Israeli goal with a shot from the edge of the area which crashed into a defender before presenting itself to Forrest to drill into the net. It was clinical and the parity that Scotland so desperately craved.
It would get better from there for the hosts. Steven Fletcher is not a firm favourite of the Tartan Army but he proved his worth to the team on the second goal, heading on a long ball to Ryan Christie. Christie took it from there, delivering an inch-perfect ball to Forrest who was never going to miss.
The half-time break failed to reinvigorate Israel, allowing Scotland to continue to control the game without creating clear chances to extend their lead. That was until the jumbo screen at Hampden ticked on to sixty-four minutes. UEFA Champions League finalist Andy Robertson finding Ryan Fraser with a pass before Forrest did the rest. A lovely touch and flawless composure to finish. A moment of history for Forrest and a commanding lead for the Scots.
The final fifteen or so minutes do strange things to Scotland sides. From Poland, Czech Republic, Netherlands and everyone in between, late heartbreak is often on the itinerary in the final throes around these parts.
Right on cue, Scotland retreated into their shell. Dia Seba provided the warning moments earlier before Zahavi hauled Israel back into this game, puncturing the Scottish backline with a shot beyond McGregor and into the net. Israel had hope once again.
Eighty-eight minutes on the clock and Tomer Hemed almost found the goal the visitors needed. A long ball over the top for the striker to fire an attempt at goal, forcing McGregor into a brilliant save. The rebound causing another skipped heartbeat but ending up just wide.
Four minutes added on at the end by German referee Tobias Welz only encouraged a now relentless Israel side. Even their goalkeeper was in the Scottish box in the final minutes but Scotland held firm, a steely determination and a play-off place for a major tournament secured.
Takeaways from the match
James Forrest has never been a key player for Scotland. Truthfully, his twenty-four caps before this latest international break have been pretty inconsequential. Caps number twenty-five and six were far from that as Forrest finally unveiled his fine form at club level on the international stage.
On Saturday and tonight, it was like watching a man possessed. Forrest was dragging Scotland to the play-off spot and no one was going to stop him. Zero goals after those first 24 caps, he struck five over the last two games and became the first Celtic player in 110 years to score a hat-trick for Scotland.
Two truly exceptional performances. A ruthlessness in front of goal often missing for Scotland and a sheer desire to make a difference. In the space of just two matches, Forrest has become integral to his country.
Doom, gloom and play-offs
Rewind to last week and Scotland were the subject of much misery. The call-offs of nine players in the lead-up to the game and low confidence in the manager, Alex McLeish, who many do not feel is the right man at the helm.
Back to present day, the doom and gloom has dissipated and suddenly everything is a little rosier indeed. There are, and always will be, the detractors, but two massive, much-needed victories and a team playing full of confidence and swagger has done wonders to improve opinion around the country.
Regardless of opinion on the manager, the facts are clear. Scotland have been given their objective and they have gone out onto the pitch and completed it. For once, there was no glorious failure and for once Scotland gave their fans something truly major to celebrate, booking a play-off spot for the first time since 2003 and that alone has to be cause for optimism for everyone.
Israel will not be at the Nations League play-off ball in 2020 and having arrived in Glasgow only needing a point, they probably already looked out their finery. Instead, they took the lead, threw it away and lost the match which will be an extreme disappointment to say the least for Andi Herzog and his players.
It wasn't all that long ago that Israel were in a real mess. A side that had won only one of their last ten fixtures before their meeting with Scotland in Haifa. They also lost their opening game of the group away in Albania which made that contest with the Scots in October a must-win game.
The team showed much-needed resilience on that night to come from behind and deliver a damaging blow to Scotland before going on to beat Albania in their next group match in Beer Sheva. A crushing 7-0 win over Guatemala on Thursday was the perfect, confidence-boosting preparation for their visit to Mount Florida.
Israel, much like Scotland, struggle to qualify for major tournaments in the traditional way. The 1970 World Cup in Mexico is the only tournament they have qualified for. The Nations League route represented a massive carrot for the national team to finally achieve that elusive qualification and their failure to grasp an opportunity that was well within their grasp is a huge blow.
Israel will enter the Euro 2020 regular qualifying like everyone else but will have to navigate a group much more challenging than the one just gone or else hope the Scots qualify through that regular route to re-open a play-off door that has slammed shut in their face this evening.
James Forrest was the outstanding player of the match but Scotland's players all pulled their weight for their country.
Scott McKenna and David Bates, although very much strange bedfellows, were solid at the back for the most part despite coming under huge pressure throughout the match. Bates especially, can hold his head high after being thrown in at the deep end following the squad withdrawals in defence.
Stuart Armstrong is a player struggling to get game time since his summer switch to Southampton. As the song goes, his hair is fine, and his performances over the last two games have been just fine too. He is playing like a player desperate to impress and injected fluidity and energy into Scotland's performance alongside Ryan Fraser.
The same could be said for Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie who both have shown they will be key players for Scotland in the future. Christie is likely to see his place in midfield come under threat from the returning John McGinn although he has done his chances of selection no harm with his displays.
As for Israel, Dabbur and Zahavi were the dangermen in most pre-match notes, but it was the latter, of Chinese club Guangzhou R&F, that delivered on the goalscoring front. He has genuine quality and was able to drag his side back into the game with his late strike.
Beram Kayal did everything he could to get Israel ticking and his brilliant strike to kick-off proceedings is worthy of a mention on it's own. His team-mate at club level, Tomer Hemed, also tried to make things happen when he came on as a late substitute.
Israel simply froze on this cold, winter night while the Scots were ultimately too hot to handle, booking their play-off place. The directorial debut of James Forrest striking gold at the box office, christening a new Hampden hero along the way.