Clarke pleased to see Scotland building momentum ahead of play-offs

Winning was everything for Scotland manager Steve Clarke as his side beat Cyprus 2-1 in Nicosia.

John McGinn swept home a 53rd-minute winner and Scotland survived a few late scares to move third in their Euro 2020 qualifying group.

The visitors had an early reprieve when George Efrem’s shot bounced off the underside of the bar and appeared to cross the line.

The goal was not given and Ryan Christie soon netted a glorious 12th-minute opener before Efrem got his goal with a well-struck volley two minutes after the break.

Scotland’s John McGinn celebrates scoring the winner
Scotland’s John McGinn celebrates scoring the winner (Tim Goode/PA).

Scotland will finish third if they get a draw at home to Kazakhstan on Tuesday, but Clarke is desperate to build a winning mentality ahead of the play-offs in March after a four-match losing streak ended their automatic qualification hopes.

Cyprus head coach Ran Ben Shimon claimed the better team lost but Clarke was not bothered about his counterpart’s assessment.

“It was important to build on the San Marino victory,” the former Scotland defender said. “We knew coming here would be a difficult game because it was a difficult game at Hampden in June, a very similar game where we got ourselves in front and I thought when we went in front we were the better team.

“Second half we conceded to another set play or second phase from a set play, but it was a wonderful strike, you have to give the lad Efrem credit.

“The reaction to that was great, getting ourselves back in front with a really good team goal. And then we showed a little bit of resilience to get the three points we wanted.

“I’m not going to sit here and say it was a fantastic performance. It was a good performance. And sometimes when you are coming out of the run of games we are coming out of, it’s more important to win than the performance.

“The win was crucial for us because it gives us the opportunity to go home against Kazakhstan, another three points and that would set us up nicely for the play-off games in March.”

Clarke was delighted to see his side brush off the disappointment of conceding after they capitulated in a 4-0 reverse in Russia last month.

Steve Clarke saw his side crushed 4-0 by Russia last month
Steve Clarke saw his side crushed 4-0 by Russia last month (Steven Paston/PA).

“The response was really pleasing because we spoke about it at half-time, funnily enough,” he said.

“I pointed out to them that at 0-0 in Russia at half-time everyone felt quite good in the dressing-room and our reaction to the adversity of losing the first goal over there wasn’t great.

“So we spoke about it and the reaction to their goal was really good. We got ourselves back in front with a great team goal.”

Clarke was not convinced Efrem’s early effort was a goal.

“I’ve seen the stills but stills are confusing,” said Clarke. “I wouldn’t go on the live pictures or the pictures that are in play, it’s very difficult to say that ball is over the line and if the officials have the same doubt then they can’t give the goal.

“You see now with the modern game, players taking corner kicks and you are convinced the ball is outside the quadrant but it only has to overhang a little bit. So I am not sure the whole ball was over the line.”

Shimon felt the incident was the “decisive moment in the game”.

He added: “To lead after six minutes would have been crucial. It was half a metre inside.

“I never speak about referees but it was a poor performance from the referee.”

He added: “The team that tried to play football lost this game. The ball was in the corner for six minutes in the latter stages.

“We prepared for long balls, but not that amount of long balls. I have respect for opponents but the better team lost.”

Meanwhile, Clarke allayed injury concerns over Steven Naismith after taking the striker off immediately after he went down clutching his leg.

“Steven is fine,” Clarke said. “The substitution was already going ahead.”

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