Scotland reignited their World Cup qualifying hopes with a valuable 1-0 victory over Austria in Vienna.
Steve Clarke’s men produced a courageous showing and triumphed thanks to Lyndon Dykes’ penalty, which moved them into second place in Group F and four points above their opponents.
With Denmark cantering their way towards sealing top spot, as their unblemished campaign continued with a convincing win over Israel, the Scots are now in pole position to finish best of the rest with four games remaining.
With Clarke having come under fire following last week’s 2-0 loss to the Danes, the response of six points from six will give the Scots huge confidence ahead of their next match at home to Israel next month.
Clarke made three changes from the side which was far from flattering in defeating Moldova by a solitary goal on Saturday. Nathan Patterson was ruled out after impressing on his first start, while Ryan Christie and Kevin Nisbet also dropped out. That means recalls for Stephen O’Donnell, Callum McGregor and Che Adams.
With Austria just a point behind the Scots, having been leapfrogged following their 5-2 loss to Israel at the weekend, Celtic midfielder McGregor had described the encounter as a ‘must-not lose.’ Given the sides had already shared a 2-2 draw at Hampden Park in March it also represented a major opportunity for Scotland to leave their opponents – ranked 23rd in the world – trailing in the qualification process.
It was the home side who came up with the early warning signs however, with an opportunity presenting itself for David Alaba which forced a block from Grant Hanley, while Marko Arnautovic rifled wide with an effort moments later.
Scotland followed suit with a strong signal they were not intending on soaking up pressure all night when they carved out their first opening on eight minutes. A well-worked move saw Andy Robertson release John McGinn down the left channel, with his pinpoint delivery met by Dykes whose downward header was met by a beaten save by Daniel Bachmann.
Austria continued to look dangerous though, with Christoph Baumgartner carving out a shooting chance on 16 minutes when he drifted inside past Jack Hendry, but struck his effort wide.
Dykes looked suitably up for the physical battle, and was perhaps fortunate to avoid a yellow card when he careered into Bachmann shortly after committing another foul, however it was his strike partner Adams who bore the brunt of Bulgarian referee Georgi Kabakov’s frustration when he was harshly carded for a light grapple with Florian Grillitsch.
Adams was the beneficiary just before the half-hour mark however, when Kabakov’s check on the VAR monitor ruled that Martin Hinteregger had felled the Southampton forward with a shirt tug inside the box.
It seemed an unexpected stroke of luck given the lack of Scottish protests, however Dykes was able to dispatch the penalty underneath the body of Bachmann who was perilously close to keeping it out.
The manner of Scotland’s lead mattered not, but the challenge was now upon them to preserve it. They succeeded in holding out until half-time, with the only nervy moment coming when an Austrian penalty claim for handball against O’Donnell fell on deaf ears.
In the early stages of the second half the Scots’ well-organised defensive unit continued to thwart clear openings for the Austrians. The VAR checking process fell in their favour once again on 57 minutes when Hanley was yellow carded for felling Hinteregger at a corner, however the penalty was not given as the set-piece had not yet been taken. The booking will result in Hanley missing next month’s crucial home game against Israel.
Austria began to ramp up their pressure but the visitors stood firm and their big opportunity to wrap up the points came on 69 minutes. A lovely interchange saw the once again impressive Billy Gilmour and McGregor combine to release Adams, who in turn played O’Donnell clean through on goal, but with his angle narrowing he saw his low effort saved by his former Kilmarnock team-mate Bachmann.
McGinn was the next to threaten with a strike over the bar from the edge of the box. A second goal would have proved crucial as the closing stages proved, with Craig Gordon forced to make an outstanding save to keep out Baumgartner’s header from a corner.
Alaba struck over with a late free-kick, with Scotland bravely holding on for a crucial three points.
AUSTRIA (4-3-2-1) – Bachmann 6; Trimmel 6, Dragovic 6, Hinteregger 5, Alaba 6; Laimer 6, Grillitsch 7 (Ulmer 77), Ilsanker 6; Schaub 5 (Demir 77), Baumgartner 7; Arnautovic 6. Subs not used – Schlager, Posch, Gregoritsch, Lindner, Ljubicic, Lienhert, Schopf, Kara, Mwene, Kainz.
SCOTLAND (3-4-1-2) – Gordon 7; Hendry 7, Hanley 7, Tierney 6; O’Donnell 6 (P McGinn 78), Gilmour 8 (Ferguson 88), McGregor 8, Robertson 7; J McGinn 6; Dykes 7 (Christie 71), Adams 7. Subs not used – Kelly, Clark, McKenna, Gallagher, Cooper, Turnbull, Nisbet, P McGinn.
Referee – Georgi Kabakov (Bulgaria) 6
Man of the match: Billy Gilmour