George Burley survived to fight another day as Scotland coach, with goals from Scott Brown and James McFadden securing a crucial victory over FYR Macedonia that kept their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ hopes alive.
Pressure had been mounting on Burley since last month's 4-0 defeat in Norway left the nation's chances of qualifying for next summer's finals in the balance, and he knew defeat at Hampden today could have spelled the end of his tenure. But the Scots rose to the challenge after a nervous first half had ended goalless, when Brown claimed his first international goal after the restart and McFadden ensured the victory late on ahead of another crunch match against the Netherlands on Wednesday.
Unsurprisingly, there were significant changes from the defeat in Norway. Craig Gordon had recovered from injury to reclaim the gloves from David Marshall, and veteran defender David Weir was recalled to the squad following his omission for the game in Oslo. Stephen McManus made his first competitive outing since suffering a knee injury last season, and McFadden was back in the starting line-up after controversially being named on the bench last time.
Simulation had dominated the headlines in recent weeks and German referee Wolfgang Stark was unimpressed when Goran Pandev went to ground under minimal contact with just 25 seconds on the clock. However, less than a minute later, FYR Macedonia's star forward had earned a free-kick just outside the box after being bundled over by Weir in a dangerous position. A short ball was played to Goce Sedloski but his effort cannoned off the body of Brown.
The visitors continued to push for the goal that would deflate the near-capacity crowd, and Gordon was called into action to produce a decent save and block from Pandev at his right-hand post. Scotland were forced to make a change with just 13 minutes gone when Callum Davidson left the action and was replaced by Steven Whittaker.
Brown had seen a decent effort whistle past the post earlier in the game and was threatening again when he ran on to a Darren Fletcher free-kick, before racing into the box and rippling the side-netting with a well-struck shot.
This may have been a must-win match for the home nation, and Burley in particular, but it was FYR Macedonia who looked more likely to open the scoring in what was becoming an increasingly tense atmosphere at Hampden. The Scotland defence looked nervous and Gordon was forced to come to the rescue after McManus allowed Pandev through on goal, before the Lazio man hooked over the crossbar after Weir failed to deal with a cross from the left.
Gordon was then called into action again to block a 25-yard drive from Pandev, before Whittaker cleared the danger. There was a furore when Brown won a corner rather than allow possession to return to Macedonia, who had put the ball out of play after one of their players was injured. However, the Scots failed to capitalise and McFadden succeeded only in picking up a costly yellow card which rules him out of the meeting with the Dutch.
A game of two halves
Scotland could have been ahead five minutes after the restart when Nikolce Noveski's attempts to clear a Steven Fletcher ball from the right saw him inadvertently prod into the path of McFadden, but the Birmingham City forward blasted wide. Gordon was then forced to deny Pandev for a third time after FYR Macedonia's all-time top scorer found himself in a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper.
The Scots did look more dangerous in the second half and goalkeeper Jane Nikoloski spilled the ball after blocking from Kenny Miller, but Steven Fletcher slid in just too late to connect at the back post.
Hampden erupted when the the elusive opener arrived after 56 minutes, when Brown beat Sedloski to the ball and connected with a Steven Fletcher cross to direct a header past the Macedonians' goalkeeper and into the bottom corner of the net.
The visitors could have restored parity when Pandev broke away down the left flank before whipping an inviting ball to the feet of Slavco Georgievski, but he squandered a great opportunity to level by blasting wide of the upright. Scotland should have doubled their advantage when Miller bore down on goal from the right flank only to see his effort flash across the face of goal and inches wide of the target.
Instead, the honours went to McFadden. A terrific solo effort saw him collect the ball on the halfway line, skip past Sedloski, round the goalkeeper and coolly slot into the back of the net with ten minutes remaining.
Scotland saw out the remainder of the match to claim the crucial three points, knowing they must do it all again when Group 9 winners the Netherlands come calling on Wednesday night.