ANOTHER qualifying campaign is about to commence this weekend as Scotland seek their first major tournament appearance since 1998.
Sunday’s match against Malta is the start of the long road to Russia, a controversial choice to host the World Cup in under two years time, as Gordon Strachan aims to end that long barren spell lasting 20 years by the time the Finals get underway.
In a group that also contains Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and, of course, England, Scotland have been handed a tough draw in their quest to reach the Worlds greatest football showpiece.
The burning question as ever is – are Scotland good enough to qualify?
As a regular Scotland Supporters Club member, I would love to say with optimism that we are good enough to qualify for the World Cup, either as group winners or via the playoffs in second place.
Unfortunately, I can’t see us finishing in the top two and that our wait for a major finals appearance will carry on.
The main reason is the quality of our players just isn’t as good as England’s, despite their horror show against Iceland in Euro 2016, or Slovakia’s, who showed glimpses of their quality at the finals and managed to beat Spain en route to France this summer.
Defensively, there are major concerns. Left back we have plenty of options in Robertson, Tierney, Shinnie and Kingsley but the other positions across the back line don’t have anywhere near the same luxury.
Grant Hanley and Russell Martin have been the first choice pairing for the last three years but there are flaws in that partnership, as proven during the qualifying campaign where they look uneasy, particularly at cross balls.
Add to that, both have been left out of the starting lineups at their respective clubs in recent weeks, it is a concern that our first choice partnership are both struggling for games.
The sad fact is they are, arguably, the best of a bad bunch available to us given that the other options in the squad are Christophe Berra and Gordon Greer, the former has never looked convincing in a Scotland jersey whilst the latter is over the hill and will unlikely be around come the finals.
It can be argued that John Souttar should’ve been included. He’s settling in nicely at Hearts and, at 19, has time to develop into a much better defender. Whether he should be in our starting line up in a crucial qualifier is another debate, probably is too soon, but would be a much more viable option in the squad than Greer.
Right back is also a concern given the rapid decline in Alan Hutton. His form for Aston Villa last season was appalling, so much so that their fans turned on him (and others in their season from hell) and was dropped for their recent league match. At international level, he has consistently over the last few years been producing poor performances and lives off that Italy game, which helped secure his £9m switch to Tottenham from Rangers.
Callum Paterson of Hearts is a serious contender to take his place but, like centre back, their aren’t much options. Phil Bardsley is never going to be a Strachan pick whilst the liability that is Steven Whittaker is not even near the Norwich team. Until a few gems of centre backs and right backs start coming through, those are going to remain problem positions for years to come and will hamper our chances of progression.
Another potential drawback to Scotland’s hopes of ending two decades in the International Football wilderness is a lack of winning mentality.
Our approach to games with the attitude of “a draw will do” has cost us crucial points and over a number of campaigns instead of going into games with the first aim of trying to win the match in hand.
In the first half of the Euro 2016 campaign, it looked as though Strachan had addressed that and we were in a good position at the halfway mark in our bid to reach the finals in France. However, that mentality changed to settling for a draw in Dublin, followed by another inept display in Georgia killed momentum and, ultimately, our hopes of ending that barren run.
Quite simply, we must get off to a good start on Sunday and we should be coming away from Malta with three points but it won’t be easy and we need to approach the game professionally in order to get the job done.
Scotland have a knack of dropping silly points either by being spooked by unfamiliar surroundings (ie Georgia) or underestimating the opposition, therefore it’s vital lessons are learned.
In a group where only the winner is guaranteed a place in Russia, and the runners up spot is not even guaranteed a playoff place, it is vital we take maximum points in Valletta to get us off to a good start and boost confidence ahead of a tough campaign.
Scotland fans are, understandably, pessimistic going into this campaign given the lack of quality in our squad, particularly at the back, and after two decades of let down.
I can’t see us progressing from a group that has an England side notoriously good in qualifying matches, Slovakia possessing a decent side built around the talents of Marek Hamsik, and Slovenia, often a dark horse not to be underestimated and have a better recent qualifying record than us.
However, I’d love nothing more than to be proven wrong and, if Strachan can get the team approaching matches with a belief they can win, then there is hope that twenty years of pain will finally come to an end.
Failure to get three points in Malta, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we didn’t given our track record, then our World Cup hopes could well be over before they begin!