James Forrest had not scored in his first 24 Scotland appearances but now has five international goalsScotland clinched a Euro 2020 play-off place and Nations League promotion after a dramatic and angst-ridden night against Israel at Hampden.
Celtic winger James Forrest scored a hat trick – taking his tally to five in two games – to put Alex McLeish’s side 3-1 up just after the hour, cancelling out Beram Kayal’s surprise opener.
However, with the Scots in control, Eran Zahavi set up a tense conclusion and it took a stunning save from Allan McGregor to stop Tomer Hemed’s late, late volley and earn Scotland victory.
The win sets up a potential play-off at Hampden against Finland in March 2020 – with a possible final against Norway or Serbia.
However, those play-off matches will only be necessary should Scotland fail to emerge from the main Euro 2020 qualifiers, for which they will be in the third pot of seeds with the draw made on 2 December.
Scotland also now join the likes of Germany, Croatia and Wales in League B for the next edition of the Nations League after a win that eases the pressure on McLeish after an abject 2-1 defeat in Israel last month.
Forrest keeps on scoring
Celtic’s Forrest has the Midas touch right now. Everything he touches turns to goals. Twelve in his past 11 games for club and country is an astonishing statistic for a winger. His composure for all three goals spoke volumes of his burgeoning self-confidence.
It was Stuart Armstrong, though, who dragged Scotland up by their bootlaces as the good feeling built up in Saturday’s 4-0 win over Albania threatened to drain away with the Hampden rain.
Following a first quarter dominated by the Israelis, the Southampton midfielder drove the hosts forward. His first foray almost brought a goal for Callum McGregor – a good hand from Ariel Harush denying him.
But shortly afterwards Armstrong burst into the box again. His shot was charged down but fell kindly for Forrest, who lashed it low beyond the keeper to begin the turnaround.
Forrest’s second had echoes of the counter-attacking beauty of his second against Albania. Andy Robertson swept the ball forward, Steven Fletcher glanced it into the path of Ryan Christie, who did superbly to bring it under control before looping it towards Forrest, who slotted past Harush.
As impressive as the Scots were beginning to look, they could not begin to breathe easily until Forrest capped a wonderful evening with a delightful third, taking a deft touch from Ryan Fraser’s pass before slamming into the net.
But just when it appeared Scotland might coast to victory, they gave Israel hope. Just as they had done when Brighton’s Kayal curled in the early opener, they sat off the visitors, allowing Zahavi time and space to hammer the ball past McGregor from outside the box.
The Scotland keeper, though, pulled off an astonishing save with just two minutes to go, showing terrific reflexes to push Hemed’s point-blank shot away and ultimately win the game.
Hemed could not get the better of McGregor in the closing stages’McLeish buys plenty goodwill’ – analysis
There was an element of Jekyll and Hyde about this performance – at times brilliant, at others timid and wasteful. But the bottom line was always going to be the result.
It buys McLeish plenty of goodwill and delivers the top-of-the-table finish that could yet be the first step on the way back to a major finals.
He will know as well as anyone that this was the easy bit. Beating Israel felt like a massive achievement on this cold November night, but Scotland will face bigger challenges in the Euro qualifiers and, indeed, in the play-offs, which could culminate in a final against either Norway or Serbia.
But Forrest and his team-mates have earned the right to celebrate this small triumph.
McLeish has won consecutive matches as Scotland manager for the first time since October 2007, during his first stint in charge
Scotland have lost just one of their past 13 competitive home games (W9 D3), remaining unbeaten in each of their past eight (W5 D3)
Forrest has scored five goals in his past two games for Scotland after failing to score in his previous 24 appearances
He is the first player to score a hat-trick for Scotland since Robert Snodgrass in September 2016 against Malta.
Ryan Fraser has been directly involved in 15 goals in 17 appearances for club and country combined in 2018-19 (5 goals, 10 assists)