Robert Snodgrass scored a hat-trick as Scotland got their World Cup qualifying campaign off to a flying start with a 5-1 victory in Malta.
Surprise starter Chris Martin and substitute Steven Fletcher were also on target as Gordon Strachan’s men gave the Scotland fans a much-needed boost after missing out on the European Championship finals, although Malta had a second man sent off in injury-time.
Malta had quickly cancelled out a fortuitous early opener from Snodgrass when Alfred Effiong headed home but Scotland scored four times after the break.
Strachan had promised to be fearless in selection but he still sprung a surprise by picking Martin up front for only his third international start.
Right-back Callum Paterson and winger Oliver Burke were handed competitive debuts while Barry Bannan started alongside reinstated skipper Darren Fletcher.
Scotland made a bright start with Burke showing his intent and Snodgrass firing not far over from distance. Matt Ritchie cut the hosts open with a pass to Andy Robertson but Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg was off his line quickly to block.
The resulting corner was only half-cleared to Snodgrass, who cut inside on the right wing and hung a cross which looped over Hogg and underneath the crossbar to give the Scots a 10th-minute lead.
The goal should have settled any nerves but Malta put paid to that within four minutes. Scotland seemed to have absorbed the danger after giving the ball away down their right side but Gareth Sciberras crossed for Effiong to get in front of Paterson and head into the top corner.
Scotland should have been back in front when Paterson’s cross found Snodgrass unmarked eight yards out but the Hull winger headed straight at Hogg.
Scotland were enjoying more of the ball but a well-organised Malta side were showing why Italy, twice, and Croatia had to make do with one-goal wins against them during their Euro 2016 campaign.
Apart from Burke’s ability to turn and run with the ball, Scotland were showing little sign of getting in behind their hosts but they did create two chances late in the half.
Grant Hanley headed Ritchie’s free-kick a yard wide and Robertson curled past the post from a tight angle following a one-two with Burke.
But Malta came close in injury-time when Andre Schembri stabbed just wide of the near post after Andrei Agius was left completely unmarked to head a free-kick into the danger area.
David Marshall made a stunning point-blank stop early in the second half but the offside flag was up anyway and Scotland regained their lead in the 53rd minute.
Scotland played on as Schembri lay prostrate near the halfway line following a challenge by Hanley and Martin converted Ritchie’s low cross from eight yards.
The hosts were unhappy Scotland did not put the ball out of play but Scotland were perfectly within their rights and Schembri quickly recovered and returned to the pitch after being stretchered off.
Martin was inches away from his second but just failed to connect with Robertson’s low cross after a great pass from Bannan. However Snodgrass was given the chance to bag his double as the Ukrainian referee pointed to the spot and sent off Jonathan Caruana, controversially ruling he had clipped the heel of the Scotland forward.
The Hull player sent Hogg the wrong way to give Scotland a cushion in the 61st minute.
Scotland took complete control against the 10 men. Fletcher got on the end of Ritchie’s deflected cross to head home in the 78th minute.
The Sheffield Wednesday striker came close to his second when he raced on to a through ball, rounded the goalkeeper and dinked the ball over the backtracking Hogg, but the ball bounced off the underside of the bar. That gave Snodgrass reward for his hard work as the winger followed up to finish calmly.
Malta’s misery was completed when Barnet winger Luke Gambin was sent off for a two-footed foul on Snodgrass.
After the match, Strachan said: “It’s been a good night, stressful at one point and that’s why I’ve not got my shirt on. I had to change.
“Winning was all we had to do. We wanted to try to perform, obviously, but it was about winning. We started well, we were moving the ball around well but we got too strung out after 20 minutes, they were too far away from each other. We sorted that out in the second half.
“There was a good start to the game and then there was a point, where many a footballer has been there and not handled it, when you think ‘1-1’ and you think about the next month ahead and the nonsense you have to put up with.
“We moved it about a bit in the second half and played closer to each other and their ability showed and their mental strength showed as well.”