Described afterwards as “an epic duel” by Scotland manager Gordon Strachan, who, like Friday’s counterpart Martin O’Neill, is a former Celtic manager, the game was played at a breakneck pace, oozing passion and with endless physical challenges.
There were only occasional flashes of skill but no shortage of excitement, commitment and an old-fashioned physicality to the match.
Scotland defender Grant Hanley was lucky to stay on the field after bringing down Shane Long to break up an attack just 12 minutes in and he was also lucky not to score an own goal late in the game when he headed against his own bar.
His yellow card was the first of only five in the game, which showed admirable restraint in a bruising encounter from Serbian referee Milorad Mazic.
He could have handed out twice as many for challenges from both sides that ranged from the late to the very late.
Both sides launched frenzied attacks but created little in the way of goalscoring opportunities until Maloney struck in the 75th minute, curling the ball past David Forde following a well-worked corner, which he took himself, to break the deadlock.
Strachan praised the player and coaching assistant Stuart McCall, whom he credited with creating the short corner routine that led to the goal.
“It was Stuart’s idea,” Strachan told reporters. “You need to be a great player to score from there, so Shaun can be delighted with himself.”
Dropped to the bench for a competitive game for the first time in 13 years, Ireland introduced Robbie Keane three minutes after the goal, but their all-time record scorer with 65 goals, could not find a way through the brave ranks of Scottish defenders in his limited time on the field.
Both sides saw defensive headers skim off their own crossbars late in the game, with Ireland’s Jon Walters and Scotland’s Hanley both close to gifting the other side a goal.
But the Scots held firm, ultimately repelling a frenetic series of Irish attacks to hold on for victory.
“We all knew it was going to be like a British cup tie, and I am delighted with the way we dealt with the physical side of it,” a delighted Strachan said.
The final whistle brought to an end a bitter return to Celtic Park for Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, who won seven trophies in five years as manager of Celtic, but he said he was happy with his side’s performances so far.
“We’ve completed three tough away games and we’ve got seven points on the board. We are absolutely still in this, without a doubt,” he told a media conference.
The win means Scotland join Ireland and Germany on seven points, three behind group leaders Poland. Georgia have three points with Gibraltar bottom of the group with no points and no goals scored.
(Editing by Mike Collett)