WHEN the World Cup Qualifying draw in St Petersburg last year threw together the Auld Enemy, the cheers could be heard loud and clear from Thurso to Gretna as Scotland fans got the game they wanted – their fiercest rivals in a competitive double header that could lead to the Worlds greatest sporting event.
Over 13,000 tickets were quickly snapped up by Scotland Supporters, including yours truly, and we’re all looking forward to the occasion of being at Wembley supporting our country, hopefully inspiring them to victory on Auld Enemy territory.
The big question is – can Scotland go to Wembley and beat England?
Right now, the evidence so far would suggest an overwhelming no given our performances so far where a refereeing blunder aided us in Malta, a late equaliser spared our blushes against Lithuania although it didn’t mask a poor showing and result and Slovakia was a disaster, cluttered with tactical blunders of the highest magnitude.
Defensively, Scotland are in their poorest shape for many years. The centre back pairing of Russell Martin and Grant Hanley has come under severe scrutiny. Hanley has barely featured at Newcastle, his only starts coming in the League Cup, and his lack of match sharpness was exposed big time in the Lithuania and Slovakia games whilst Martin has been mainly playing right back for a Norwich side who have been shipping goals by the barrel load in recent weeks. That kind of form doesn’t bode well going into our biggest match of the group.
The alternatives are Christophe Berra and Gordon Greer. Berra has played regularly for an Ipswich side who have struggled for consistency whilst Greer has been poor for a poor Blackburn side struggling badly near the foot of the Championship table, so there is a degree of sympathy for Gordon Strachan in that there isn’t a great deal of talent to choose from.
Whilst Hanley and Martin have been appalling so far in this campaign, they have had little or no protection in front of them. Neither Darren Fletcher or James McArthur took ownership to say who was responsible for fulfilling the holding midfield role in Slovakia, which in turn left the defence exposed. The fact that Strachan has persuaded Scott Brown to return for the fixture says it all and he knows that Brown will sit in front of the back four and give them the protection they desperately need.
Ahead of that, Strachan needs to find the right mix to carve up chances to get the goals required to beat England. The lack of pace in Slovakia was bewildering beyond belief, especially coming up against a slow defence containing Martin Skrtel, and the English rearguard won’t be too worried if the same four attacking players were picked again.
More pace needs to be injected into the team with the likes of Leigh Griffiths, Oliver Burke, Ikechi Anya and James Forrest all ready and waiting to make an impact. A mixture of two of them, along with the guile of Snodgrass and Ritchie, could be key to our chances of victory.
The annoying thing going into a game knowing the flaws of the Scotland side is that we’re not coming up against a top England side, who have been very unconvincing in their three games so far and are still smarting from the controversial Sam Allardyce scandal.
Gareth Southgate has stepped into the breach to replace a man, who was given £1m compensation for a gross misconduct offence, to oversee four matches whilst his employers ponder on who they want to succeed Sam the Idiot long term, not that there are going to be many people of a high calibre queuing up for that position.
England are still smarting from a poor Euro 2016 campaign that saw them lose to Iceland in the last 16, and they will be looking to kickstart a campaign they fully expect to romp through with ease.
Although it’s not a great England squad, they still have more than enough talent to be able to beat Scotland and the fact we’re 9/1 with some bookies tells you a lot about what people think of our chances to win.
Scotland have shown many times in the past that they can spring a surprise result from nowhere, like at Wembley in 1999 when Don Hutchison leaped like a salmon above Tony Adams to claim a famous 1-0 victory.
Scotland need that kind of result on a Friday to get their faltering World Cup Qualifying campaign back on track, and also save Strachan’s job in the process.
If we catch England on an off night, something very much possible given the mood around the camp right now, then we have a chance if everyone, especially the defence, have the game of their lives.
However, any repeat of the pitiful performances shown so far, and it will be Scotland who are sent home to think again!