It was difficult to pick out a standout performer from Scotland’s display against Lithuania on Friday night. Not because there were none, which has been a common problem for Gordon Strachan’s side in recent times, but because there were too many to choose from. The Dark Blues shone right across the pitch as they produced their best performance in years.
New Liverpool signing Andy Robertson was in sparkling form, scoring Scotland’s second goal in a 3-0 win with a curling left footed strike into the top corner. Leigh Griffiths couldn’t add his name to the score sheet, but the Celtic forward’s movement was crucial in creating space for others around him. Matt Phillips, making his first competitive start at international level, also impressed.
In the number eight position, though, was where arguably the best individual display could be found, with Stuart Armstrong driving Scotland forward in Vilnius. The 25-year-old scored the opener, heading home from a corner kick, but it was his overall performance that really caught the eye.
It was everything you would want from an attacking midfielder.
Armstrong’s performance surely caught the eye of Brendan Rodgers, his club manager at Celtic.
Of course, the 25-year-old has found himself a peripheral figure for the Scottish champions so far this season, displaced from the starting lineup by new summer signing Olivier Ntcham, who has quickly become one of the most important players at Celtic Park.
A contract dispute, which has since been resolved with the signing of a new deal, didn’t help matters, with some Celtic supporters even turning against Armstrong amid reports of interest from England, but finally, the midfield is settled for the season ahead. His play against Lithuania illustrated this.
That performance highlighted the progress Armstrong has made over the past year or so. The former Dundee United man is now one of the very best Scottish players in the game right now, owing a lot to Rodgers, who turned him into a key figure at Celtic last season. Now, Rodgers mustn’t forget that.
While Ntcham has given Celtic a more stable platform in the centre of the pitch, forging a relationship with captain Scott Brown, the French youngster doesn’t give the Hoops the same creative flair as Armstrong.
In the Champions League, Ntcham will likely be favoured, particularly against opponents of Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain’s calibre, but that doesn’t mean there is no scope for Armstrong.
It could be that Armstrong is rotated in and out of the Celtic lineup this season, but he could still be on track for a really campaign. He still takes the games to opponents, carrying real goal threat from the edge of the box. Celtic scored goals from all over the pitch last season, and Armstrong deserves his fair share of the credit for that.
There has been friction between Rodgers and Armstrong, or more accurately Armstrong’s camp, with the Northern Irishman pointing the finger at the midfielder’s agent. “It’s not the boy, it’s not him,” he said.
“But if you’re paying someone to make decisions for you and who will gain their commission from it then of course that’s what you look towards. But this is something that could and should have been done a long time ago. That’s my feeling on it.”
With the situation now resolved and a contract extension signed, Armstrong can now focus on once again showing his worth to Celtic, although not before Scotland’s crucial World Cup qualifier against Malta. If the Dark Blues are to somehow make it to Russia next summer, Armstrong will have to repeat his Lithuania form at least three more times to qualify for the playoffs.
“The belief has always come from the group of players we have got, which has evolved over the last year for different reasons: confidence, injuries, people playing better, their club sides doing better,” Strachan said ahead of the game at Hampden on Monday.
“But I have never had any doubts in the players really, and because we have never had any doubts with each other we could come back from not being in a good place.
“If we did not believe in ourselves, when you are not on a good place you cannot get out of it. We have dragged ourselves out of the bad place and we could only have done that if we believed in each other and enjoy working with each other.”
Is Strachan was looking for a player to embody that belief and epitomise the verve of Scotland’s qualification resurgence, he would have surely turned to Armstrong. The midfielder is everything Scotland need at this stage of the campaign, and he could still be a player Celtic need too.