TWELVE months ago, it looked like the Road to Russia was shut on Scotland.
Two appalling results, a lucky home draw with Lithuania and a resounding 3-0 thumping in Slovakia, put the Scots World Cup Qualifying campaign in serious jeopardy and looked as though was going to push Manager Gordon Strachan out of a job.
However, three wins and a draw since the turn of the year have propelled Scotland into a scenario where consecutive victories at home to the Slovaks and away to Slovenia will see them finish second in the group, and with it the likelihood of a playoff for a place in next summers finals.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a group of players, who went on a rapid slide that started with a dismal end to their Euro 2016 qualification campaign and carried into the beginning of the World Cup adventure. In the calendar years 2015-2016, Scotland only won three out of ten competitive matches, two against Gibraltar and one away to Malta, so the turnaround is even more impressive that’s given the Tartan Army renewed hope that we can end the tournament exile stretching back to France ’98.
So what has changed that’s given Scotland a lifeline in their bid to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia?
The biggest change has been team selection. Strachan has been, predominantly, picking players who are on the pitch and on form for their clubs. Beforehand, the likes of Steven Fletcher, Ikechi Anya, Robert Snodgrass and Grant Hanley were guaranteed starters despite not featuring for their clubs. They’ve since been replaced in the team by the likes of Christophe Berra, Stuart Armstrong, Matt Phillips, Kieran Tierney and Leigh Griffiths and they have been able to carry their good club form onto the international stage.
What has also helped Strachan is the form of his former employers Celtic. The fact that six of the regular starting line up (Armstrong, Tierney, Griffiths and James Forrest plus the return of Craig Gordon and Scott Brown) have come from a team brimming with such confidence has benefited the National team hugely as they bring their winning mentality into the squad. That core have helped transfer that confidence to the rest of the group and belief has increased in a squad who lost their way for two years.
Therefore it’s just our luck that two of those players are ruled out injured for the double header, and arguably the two most influential players that’ve helped transform our side – Brown and Armstrong. Brown’s return from a brief international retirement has been vital, he gives the team that much needed protection in front of a shaky defence and his influence as a captain cannot be understated. Armstrong has been superb since being thrown in for his debut against Slovenia at Hampden, where he set up the only goal of the game, and has added more energy to the midfield. His loss is huge for these matches.
It’s likely Darren Fletcher will step into Brown’s position in the team and also take on the armband. Whilst he’s performed well for Stoke this season, his International performances in recent matches have been well below par and he’ll need to really step up if he’s to help drive the side onto victory.
Who takes Armstrong’s position is a bigger question. Robert Snodgrass is favourite having now got regular first team football back under his belt at Aston Villa on loan, and his guile could be the factor in Strachan picking him. There’s also James Morrison, another long standing member of the squad, but is lacking game time. An outsider for a starting role is Callum McGregor, drafted into cover the losses of his club teammates. Having scored twice in the 2-2 draw with Hibs on Saturday, McGregor is full of confidence and might be worth a gamble, although these games might come too soon given how much is at stake.
It is unlikely that the rest of the starting line up from last months wins against Lithuania and Malta, which would be a good thing given the results and how we played in Lithuania especially. There was a confidence about the team that had been missing for a while, and there was pace in the side going forward in Forrest, Griffiths and Matt Phillips.
Pace is what was severely lacking in the visit to Thursday’s opponents Slovakia as Strachan made a tactical blunder of the highest magnitude by electing for slower players in Snodgrass, Steven Fletcher, Matt Ritchie and Barry Bannan as they came up against an ageing Slovakian defence. Their lack of pace meant they were unable to help out defensively as the hosts ripped us apart. The recent upturn in performances should mean there is no repeat in tactics this week.
Despite the improvement, there is little question that Scotland still face an uphill battle to overhaul the Slovakians into second place. Aside from the injuries to Brown and Armstrong, they are up against a side who followed up their victory against us by winning the next four matches before that run ended against England last month. Slovakia also made it to the last 16 of Euro 2016 before they went out to World Champions Germany, so they are a side of decent pedigree that shouldn’t be underestimated. Victory is essential to keep our hopes of second place alive given that Slovakia host Malta in the final match, therefore they are highly likely to be in the Playoffs should they avoid defeat at Hampden.
Scotland, on the other hand, go to Slovenia to finish the campaign on Sunday.
That will be a tricky game against a side who are unbeaten at home in the section, including a win against Slovakia and were unlucky not to take all three points against England, but for a Joe Hart wonder save they might have done. The Slovenians also have an outside chance of the playoffs as they are Scotland on goal difference. They go to Wembley in hope of an upset that they need to, realistically, stay in the hunt.
Even if they are out by the weekend, it’s still a game that Slovenia will be gunning for victory to aid their seeding aspirations for the forthcoming Euro 2020 draw, and also to avenge their Hampden loss where they paid the price for playing for a 0-0 draw and suffered a late defeat thanks to Chris Martin’s strike.
Scotland can take heart from their two previous matches in Slovenia as inspiration for Sunday’s match. A draw in a friendly five years ago followed a brilliant 3-0 win back in 2005, ironically at the end of a World Cup Qualifying campaign. Three superb goals from Darren Fletcher, James McFadden and Paul Hartley done the job that night and a repeat would be amazing, especially if we get the win over Slovakia.
Six points from these two matches is a massive ask for Scotland but they deserve credit for the way they’ve hauled themselves back into contention in the past twelve months. Time will tell if it is all too late and that the poor start has cost them or if we are going into next weeks draw for the Playoffs.
Knowing Scotland, they’ll give us hope and then somehow fall short from the grasp of victory. However maybe, just maybe, they’ll find a way to get through this tough double-header with six points and take a step to ending two decades in the International wilderness.