Scotland vs Republic of Ireland: Maloney's magic touch blows group wide open

Scotland 1 Republic of Ireland 0: Ireland striker Shane Long squandered a gilt-edged chance on the night he won his 50th cap

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After a game of so much blunt force, Shaun Maloney offered the single magic touch. That was not the only irony to his brilliant 74th-minute goal, which gave Scotland a fine  1-0 victory over Ireland at Celtic Park.

In the build-up to the game, so much of the attention had been on another former Celtic creator with an Irish-sounding name, but few expected it would be Maloney to seize it rather than Aiden McGeady.

The Everton winger was ultimately as limp as his team. This victory greatly strengthen’s Scotland’s position in the group, however, and suddenly sees them grab the initiative ahead of Ireland.

 Gordon Strachan said it would be like a “British cup tie” and it immediately felt like that and so much more. This was a mile-a-minute derby. Ireland pushed Scotland right with a set-piece straight away, before Steven Fletcher responded with a header that went narrowly over.

The sheer pace of the encounter was regularly catching out both defences, most notably Grant Hanley. The Scottish centre-half was forced to brutally bring down Jon Walters  just inside the home side’s half, and Hanley was perhaps fortunate to only receive a booking.

He was not the only one. Jeff Hendrick went in strongly on Steven Whittaker for another yellow card. A red card seemed only a matter of time, but it also wasn’t too long before Scotland forced Ireland back with some proper football.

Their central midfield three were easily outmanoeuvring the Irish two and, on the right, the game seemed to be passing Aiden McGeady by.

The winger wasn’t doing enough at that point to justify all the pre-game attention over the fact he opted to play for Ireland rather than Scotland, although the way in which the ball was frequently flying through the air didn’t really suit his poise.

Fletcher then tried to be too poised, squandering the best chance of the first half shortly before the break. Whittaker drilled the ball across the Irish box but, rather than offer the simple strike that the delivery demanded, Fletcher tried to flick it. The ball meekly bounced out of the box, and Ireland were able to catch their breath at last.

Martin O’Neill’s side re-adjusted at the break, and did manage to arrest the pace of the game. It was not a surprise either to also see them begin to create the better chances.

Shane Long had surprisingly been picked ahead of Robbie Keane, for what was the Southampton striker’s 50th international cap, and he should have had his 12th international goal on 53 minutes. An Irish set-piece was flashed into the box, Walters helped it on, but Long could only head into David Marshall’s hands.

The keeper then got his fingers to a McGeady cross-shot minutes later, as the game finally got a glimpse of just why the winger merited such attention in the first place.

It could still have been Scotland who struck the first blow, however, as substitute Chris Martin – on for Fletcher – narrowly shot wide from Steven Naismith’s cross.

They eventually got their goal, but it was through finesse rather than physicality. Maloney wriggled free at the edge of the Irish box from a short corner, before curling a brilliant effort around David Forde in the Irish goal.

The game saw a typically frantic finish, with Ireland forcing one set-piece off the bar, but they couldn’t scramble it over the line.

A delicately-poised group has now been blown wide open, albeit with a moment of real craft.