It took 25 caps for James Forrest to score his first international goal for Scotland. Now the Celtic winger is off the mark, he can’t stop.
The drought ended with two fine strikes in the 4-0 destruction of Albania on Saturday and here, when it mattered most, two clinical strikes in the final eleven minutes of the first half were followed by the cherished hat-trick which secured Scotland’s first play-off qualification since 2003.
It took time for Alex McLeish to shoehorn the 27-year-old’s talents into a 4-3-3 formation.
The first Scotland hat-trick since a Robert Snodgrass treble against Malta in September 2016 makes Forrest the first Scotland player since Denis Law in 1963 to score two or more goals in successive internationals. With eleven in eleven games for club and country the Parkhead player is now becoming a precious and rare Scottish entity. A talented footballer who scores.
How vital the third goal proved as Israel peppered Scotland’s goal in a tense, nervous finale. As valuable as the clinical right foot of Forrest was the right glove of Allan McGregor, the Rangers goalkeeper denying substitute Tomer Hemed the 88th minute equaliser which would have sent Israel through to the play-offs with an outstanding save.
Eran Zahavi’s fine strike after 75 minutes dragged the score back to 3-2 and the night almost ended in a typically Scottish finale.
Yet, by the end, the fog of a convoluted Nations League format was beginning to clear.
Results across League C mean a one-legged semi-final now beckons at Hampden in March 2020, most likely against Finland.
Victory in that game would strip matters down to an all or nothing final home or away, with the chance for Scotland to qualify for their first major finals since France 98 as one of 13 host nations.
Booed from the pitch by the Tartan Army after a dismal 2-1 defeat to Israel in Haifa, Scotland would gladly have accepted that scenario last month.
‘I was down after the game in Haifa,’ McLeish admitted on Tuesday night. ‘Criticism is fine, because it makes you want to do better. Sometimes it can be over the top. But we bounced back and showed resilience.
‘There is more to come now. Now they have evidence of what they have done over the last two games. We showed Israel how we could really play.
‘It’s given us a massive feeling of power and self satisfaction. We were written off and we’ve come through it against adversity. That’s a great part of your character when you can do that.
‘But you don’t get a chance to rest on your laurels. You have to try to keep improving. The players should be looking to be stronger mentally after those kind of performances.’
The Scots now enter the second phase of qualifying as third seeds, buoyed by the security of a safety net.