INTERNATIONAL week is upon us again and players will be reporting to Scotland duty to prepare for a crucial period in their bid to qualify for the World Cup.
Gordon Strachan’s men face a double header within a four day period, starting with Lithuania at Hampden on Saturday night before, arguably, the tougher challenge of facing Slovakia in Bratislava next Tuesday.
Last months opening victory in Malta was encouraging, particularly with the returning Robert Snodgrass scoring a hat trick, and hopefully will act as a confidence booster going into these next two matches.
The target most people will set is four points, which is understandable and we would take that now, but Scotland should be going with the attitude of targeting victory in both matches rather than the attitude of “a draw will do” when we face the Slovakian’s next week.
That attitude has come back to haunt us in previous campaigns, particularly the last one when settling for a draw in Dublin actually kept Ireland in contention as opposed to killing them off, and if we’re going to at least reach the playoffs then victory at the home of one of our main rivals would send a major signal of intent and deal a hammer blow to the Slovakians very early on.
Not that I’m suggesting that it’ll be easy against Slovakia, far from it. Right now, they are above us in the World rankings on merit and, unlike ourselves, went to Euro 2016 having beaten Spain in qualifying and acquitted themselves reasonably well, reaching the last 16 before being outclassed by World Champions Germany.
In Marek Hamsik, they have a player of supreme quality who is capable of changing the game in an instant. Right now, we don’t have an individual talent at that level though there are hopes that Oliver Burke can progress to a high level on the back of his move to Bundesliga side Leipzig.
Whilst it will be difficult, there is no reason why Scotland can’t go to Slovakia and take all three points if we show belief we can go there and win. In Poland last campaign, we played very well and looked capable of winning and, whilst that didn’t end up happening, a similar level of performance could deliver the three points that could be so vital in the final standings.
What is vital right now though is we go to Bratislava with three points tucked away safely from Saturday’s match with Lithuania.
The form guide from previous matches is heavily in our favour, with four wins out of four and the visitors only goal at Hampden coming from a controversial penalty won by a blatant dive from Salius Mikolaunas in 2007.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a walkover for Scotland, no game is unless it’s Gibraltar, even Malta had it’s worries before we strolled through. The Lithuanian’s proved in their opening game with Slovenia, where a very late goal prevented them from picking up all three points, proves they will be difficult opponents and will be coming to the National Stadium to frustrate us.
However, that doesn’t deflect from the fact we need to pick up all three points and go to Slovakia with maximum points from the opening two matches against the bottom seeded sides. Anything less and our qualification hopes could be severely dented early on and leave us with an uphill battle to reach the finals in Russia.
The main concern going into the games, other than the already well documented dodgy defence, is the form of our strikers at club level.
Leigh Griffiths is only just back from injury whilst the other options, Steven Fletcher, Chris Martin and Steven Naismith, have four English Championship goals between them (three of them from Fletcher) whilst Naismith wasn’t even on the Norwich bench on Saturday.
Strachan will be hoping that one of them finds their scoring boots in time for these qualifiers to help us to the points we require to help us on the Road to Russia.
If we play to our capabilities, the minimum target of four points is achievable and sets us up nicely for next months trip to Wembley.
However, if we go into either game with the “a draw will do” attitude, then we will already be facing an uphill battle and risk the famine of tournament football going into a third decade!