Robert Snodgrass scored a hat-trick as Scotland avoided a potential upset and beat nine-man Malta 5-1 in their opening World Cup 2018 Group F qualifier.
Snodgrass netted a lob and a penalty either side of a Chris Martin goal before substitute Steven Fletcher added the fourth. Snodgrass grabbed Scotland’s fifth late on, but the victory had been in serious doubt after Alfred Effiong equalised for Malta.
Gordon Strachan’s side were expected to beat Malta, but a promising start from Scotland gave way to a nervy defensive performance.
Fortunately for Strachan, Snodgrass and Matt Ritchie were in good form going forward and the Scots had a man advantage for the final half hour after Jonathan Caruana was sent off for a challenge on Martin that led to the penalty. Luke Gambin was also given his marching orders in the dying minutes.
The result will ease the pressure on Strachan’s position as manager, but large parts of the performance suggested that Scotland will need to improve drastically if they are to have a chance of qualifying from a group that also contains England, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Scotland looked confident and assured from the kick-off and their first chance fell to Andrew Robertson, who shook off his marker but could not beat onrushing goalkeeper Andrew Hogg when put through by Ritchie.
Snodgrass then put the visitors ahead in the ninth minute in fortuitous fashion. The Hull star broke down the right wing before cutting inside and sending over a lob that appeared to be aimed at the head of Ritchie, but, having beaten Hogg, the ball dropped into the top corner of the net via the inside of the post.
Scotland’s lead lasted barely four minutes, though, as Robertson’s poor defensive header fell to Gareth Sciberras and he crossed for Effiong, who arrived ahead of Callum Paterson to beat David Marshall with a diving header.
Snodgrass should have restored Scotland’s advantage after 24 minutes when Paterson’s cross found him completely unmarked in front of goal, but his downward header was saved by the feet of Hogg.
Grant Hanley missed another free header for the Scots before Malta went within a whisker of taking the lead when Andre Schembri flashed a header past Marshall’s post on the stroke of half-time.
Martin flashed his first attempt of the game over the crossbar early in the second half, but Scotland were cut open again moments later, only to have their blushes spared by an offside flag as Malta carved out a clear chance to score.
A fast break down the left wing by Ritchie then produced Scotland’s second goal and the Newcastle United winger’s cross beat the defence and all Martin had to do was poke the ball home from close range.
Robertson gave Martin another golden chance with a cross from the left a moment later, but the Fulham striker fell under a challenge from Caruana and the defender was shown a straight red card.
Snodgrass tucked the ensuing spot-kick into the bottom corner of the net and Ritchie capped off an impressive performance on 78 minutes by providing the cross for substitute Fletcher to head the fourth goal.
There was still time for Snodgrass to tap in six minutes from time to complete his treble and secure a result that somewhat flattered Scotland, before Gambin ended a forgettable night for Malta by getting sent off for kicking out at the hat-trick hero.