Rob Maclean: Five things learned as Scotland beat Malta 5-1

Scotland head coach Gordon Strachan grimaces on the sidelines in Malta
Head coach Gordon Strachan had to change his sweat-soaked shirt at full-time

It wasn't a case of no sweat

Gordon Strachan was made to sweat literally before his Scotland team eventually completed the mauling of Malta.

He had to change his sodden shirt before stepping into the after-match media conference to explain how serious a situation Scotland had been in when the score was 1-1 against a team ranked 176th in the world.

It was the head coach who introduced the word "crisis" to describe that point in the match when the Tartan Army went eerily quiet as they feared an unhappy anniversary.

A year ago to the day, Scotland had lost in Georgia to effectively scupper hopes of reaching the Euro 2016 finals.

Tense? Nervous? Stressful? It was all of the above as the players dug out what was, in the end, an emphatic 5-1 win with a little bit of assistance, it would have to be said, from the Ukrainian referee.

The players can take a big boost from that transformed performance. They passed a major test in crisis management.

Scotland's Robert Snodgrass (third left) celebrates scoring against Malta
Robert Snodgrass (third left) scored a hat-trick at Ta' Qali Stadium

Scotland greener with Snodgrass

Hat-trick man Robert Snodgrass has an almost talismanic influence on the players around him.

His goals and all-round performance were obviously instrumental in Scotland extricating themselves from a sticky situation in Malta - but the effect he clearly has on his team-mates seems, on reflection, every bit as important.

Snodgrass picked up a niggling knock the weekend before in Hull City's game against Manchester United, but there was never any prospect of him calling off.

Not when he's suffered, last season, the sort of injury that could have been career ending.

Snodgrass is making up for lost time and underlining, as if it was necessary, how central he is to Scotland's hopes of qualifying for the next World Cup.

There's an effervescence about the midfielder, on and off the pitch, that is infectious. It promises to be a vital ingredient on the road to Russia.

Scotland's Matt Ritchie (right) in action against Malta
Matt Ritchie (right) was sold to Newcastle by Bournemouth for £12m

Cashing in on Ritchie's big-money move

Matt Ritchie might have moved a league lower in his club football, but the Newcastle United winger has certainly stepped up a level in his international career.

He's in the English Championship this season after, for some, an eyebrow-raising decision to leave Premier League Bournemouth.

Not that the Scotland supporters will give a jot which team Ritchie plays for as long as he continues to produce the sort of performance that has made him a first-choice pick for national team gaffer Strachan.

He has a left foot to die for. Delivery from set-piece or open play hits a consistently high standard and the curled assist that allowed Chris Martin to tap in Scotland's second goal in Malta had pinpoint written all over it.

It was the gloss on Ritchie's impressive showing and, for me, only treble-shooter Snodgrass stopped Ritchie getting man of the match.

Scotland's David Marshall and Robert Snodgrass celebrate in Malta
David Marshall has joined Robert Snodgrass at Hull after leaving Cardiff City

Marshall ideal to organise defence

You're forgiven for being surprised if I pick out goalkeeper David Marshall as one of my key players on the back of that World Cup opener.

He didn't really have much to do, despite picking the ball out of the net after the Maltese equaliser and watching one or two scary moments in front of him.

But Marshall did make one stunning save when the score was 1-1.

The offside flag went up. Wrongly, on closer inspection of the TV reruns.

And he didn't know it at the time as he showed razor-sharp reflexes to deny Malta's Andre Schembri.

On another night, the flag would have stayed down and we would be reflecting on a big turning point in the match.

Marshall is surely Scotland's undisputed number one and moving to the English top-flight to join up with the Scottish commune at Hull City will only help him enhance his growing reputation.

Scotland's Grant Hanley and Russell Martin celebrate in Malta
Grant Hanley and Russell Martin remain Gordon Strachan's preferred pairing in defence

Take heart despite soft centre

The importance of Marshall is emphasised when we consider Scotland's big weakness.

Suspect defending wasn't a shock discovery in Malta. We've known it and worried about it for a long time.

The problem was only exacerbated by a lack of game time this season for Russell Martin at Norwich City and Grant Hanley with Newcastle.

The Maltese goal was a horrible moment and the match changed on the back of that soft equaliser.

Scotland were clearly playing too open a game, but the central defence looked vulnerable too many times.

But who would you have picked in those positions? Martin and Hanley would have been my choice because they've played together plenty of times and the squad offers nothing better.

It's the area of the Scotland team that is the glaringly obvious cause for concern.

But, for now, let's put the accent on the positive. A winning start to the campaign and lots of reasons to be cheerful.

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