McCoist the saviour for Scotland

Scotland 1 Greece 0
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The Independent Online

reports from Hampden Park

Scotland 1 Greece 0

Ally McCoist, with his first touch in international football since breaking a leg in Lisbon some 28 months ago, headed Scotland to a hard-earned and potentially crucial victory over Greece here last night.

Within 60 seconds of coming on, and with just 18 minutes left, the talismanic Rangers striker met John Collins's cross with a deft glancing touch. The ball looped into the far corner of the net, and the reaction of McCoist's colleagues, he chased them around the track in a delirious dance, suggested that Scotland feel they may have done the hard part in their quest to qualify for next summer's European Championship finals

Reports of Russia's rout of Finland had filtered through in time both to stun and hearten Scotland and their supporters. The Finns, who started the day as Group Eight leaders, now have to beat the Scots away next month to keep alive their prospects. Other pre-match news was less auspicious, both Colin Hendry and Alan Mclaren failing fitness tests to deprive Craig Brown of two of his regular defence.

The upheaval meant a first cap for Tosh McKinlay, who joined his colleagues only hours before the game, and a first home appearance for Craig Burley, nephew of the Ipswich manager and former Scotland full-back George Burley. McCoist began on the bench, his long struggle against injury having left him short of the level of fitness a starting place demanded.

Burley soon made his mark, in more ways than one. After only eight minutes his crude challenge on Michail Kassapis brought him a yellow card. Four minutes later, he headed over with the Greeks in disarray. By then, though, Scotland might well have been trailing, Zissis Vryzas having shot wide after stealing in behind the defence.

The Hampden Roar may belong to a bygone age, but the decibel level was higher than at any time since the epic World Cup win over France in 1989. After exhorting the public to back his side, Brown - who began his programme message with "Dear fellow supporters" - could hardly complain. In the circumstances, the passing game with which the Scots pursued a breakthrough revealed exemplary self-control.

It was not, however, unduly troubling Ilias Atmatzidis in the visitors' goal, although Burley again arrived late to send another header too high seven minutes from the interval. With Greece beginning to look ominously assured, the pressure was mounting for Scotland to follow their natural instincts and commit more players to attack.

In the first half Gary McAllister had done his best work in a deep-lying role. While the restart saw the captain seeking to support the front two more, scoring chances remained at a premium at both ends. Greece, far better organised than in their shambolic World Cup campaign of a year ago, covered diligently and tackled aggressively making light of the two substitutions forced upon them before the contest was an hour old.

Hard as McAllister strove to spark his team, it was Burley who appeared destined to be Scotland's nearly-man. In the 58th minute, as the ball was threaded through by Stuart McCall, the Chelsea midfielder found himself in the clear with only Atmatzidis to beat. He kept the ball down and on target, yet too close to the keeper, who saved with his legs.

Almost immediately, it was Jim Leighton's turn to demonstrate that his renaissance continues. First he used his fingertips to touch over a rising drive by the substitute Alexios Alexandris. Then he was plunging to his left to fist away a goal-bound header from the same player following a cross by Greece's earlier replacement, Nichos Machlas.

Two fresh faces had given Greece the renewed impetus, an impression confirmed when another good jump, by Machlas, won a corner as the ball deflected off Boyd.

The temptation for Brown to pull a similar stroke with his substitutes was one the Scotland manager did not resist. Richly and instantaneously, McCoist's 16th goal for his country vindicated his decision.

SCOTLAND (3-5-2): Leighton (Hibernian); Calderwood (Tottenham), McKimmie (Aberdeen), Boyd (Celtic); Burley (Chelsea), McCall (Rangers), McAllister (Leeds), Collins (Celtic), McKinlay (Celtic); Jackson (Hibernian), Shearer (Aberdeen). Substitutes: McCoist (Rangers) for Shearer, 71; Robertson (Hearts) for Jackson, 71.

GREECE (1-2-5-2): Atmatzidis (AEK Athens); Karataidis (Olympiakos); Dabizas (Olympiakos), Kalitzakis (Panathinaikos); Zagorakis (PAOK Salonika), Apostolakis (Panathinaikos), Tsalouchidis (PAOK), Tsartas (AEK), Kassapis (AEK); Vryzas (Skoda-Xanthi), Batista (AEK). Substsitutes: Machlas (OFI Crete) for Vryzas, 30; Alexandris (Olympiakos) for Batista, 51; Georgiadis (Panathinaikos) for Zagorakis, 79.

Referee: P Mikkelsen (Denmark).