THE road to end 22 years of tournament famine begins in under seven days time for Scotland!
When the European Championships get underway next June, that will be how long it’s been since we last kicked a ball in a major competition. Back then, fans were disappointed at going out of the France ’98 World Cup at the group stages, meaning that Scotland had still not reached the knockout stages of a major international tournament in ten attempts (eight World Cups and two European Championship Finals).
How we would all love to be in that position again, rather than licking our wounds at another failure to qualify!
This time, we have already guaranteed ourselves a second bite at the cherry before a ball is kicked in the Euro 2020 Qualifying campaign, thanks to topping our inaugural UEFA Nations League Group, thus securing a playoff berth this time next year. Whilst it is good to have that security of the Section C Playoff, it would be more satisfying if Scotland reached their first Euros since 1996 via the more conventional route.
Scotland have been handed a tough draw in Belgium, Russia, Cyprus, Kazakhstan and San Marino. The Belgians, of course, were impressive in the World Cup, finishing third overall having lost narrowly to eventual winners France in the Semi Final. Russia, in the tournament they hosted, also performed well, reaching the Quarter Finals despite falling to 70th in the World Rankings, before going out on penalties to Finalists Croatia.
Cyprus will be a tough nut to crack from pot four and there is some history between the sides with Scotland requiring two narrow victories en route to Qualifying for Italia ’90, one of them a 97th minute winner from Richard Gough in Limassol. Kazakhstan are a bit of an unknown quantity and are one of the harder Pot Five sides, though minnows San Marino should be an easier side to come up against and are expected to pick up ten defeats in the group.
The fixture list gives Scotland an opportunity to build up momentum before they face the top two ranked sides in the group. First up is an away double header against Kazakhstan and San Marino on Thursday and Sunday respectively, before hosting Cyprus on 8 June.
That schedule gives us an opportunity to get nine points on the board and build up confidence ahead of a trip to Belgium on 11 June and then a home double header against Russia and the Belgians in September. An away trip to the Russians then follows in October before Scotland again face the sides ranked below them in their last three matches, two of them at Hampden.
Of course, it’s not going to be an easy task getting into the top two positions that guarantees Scotland a place in a tournament they co-host with eleven other nations. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome and a lot of travelling to endure with their trips to the Far East of Europe in particular.
Despite the eight hour plane journey that awaits them next week, Alex McLeish’s side must approach this game with the attitude that only a win will do if they are to get their campaign off to a positive start!
For too long, Scotland have approached games with the attitude of settling for a point against sides of similar or inferior quality, and that attitude has come to bite them on a number of occasions over the past two decades. Whilst Kazakhstan are no mugs and will fancy themselves for an outside shot at Euro 2020 qualification, they are a side we simply must target maximum points from both our matches, with victory there next week giving us the platform for a solid campaign.
The right formation
In order for Scotland to get off to a good start, McLeish must now know his best formation after a difficult beginning to his second spell in charge. The last two Nations League qualifiers saw a massive improvement to his previous eight matches and it’s no coincidence that they reverted to a system that the vast majority of the squad play in on a regular basis.
The 3-5-1-1, designed to shoehorn left backs Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney into the team, was a disaster and none of the players, including Robertson and Tierney, looked comfortable in that system, particularly in Israel. In the 4-2-3-1 system, the players looked more comfortable in the games against Albania and Israel in November, giving McLeish a platform to build on for the upcoming campaign.
However, four months is a long time in football and the Scotland Manager has been dealt a double blow with the injury to Ryan Christie, at a time he’d established himself as one of the first picks in the Celtic side, and sudden retirement of goalkeeper Allan McGregor.
The timing of McGregor’s decision to step back from International football is very peculiar. He cites that he needs to rest during the International break to prolong his club career, and at 37 that is understandable. However, that was also the case back in November and he showed no signs of packing in Scotland duty at a point that his club side were still in Europa League competition. It may be too much of a coincidence to point out that he was recently disciplined by the SFA for his kick out at Lewis Ferguson at Pittodrie, and that the decision didn’t go down well with the Ibrox club, who released a statement after the goalkeeper’s appeal was rejected.
McGregor’s decision not to add to his 42 cap haul gives Scott Bain the opportunity to grasp the Number One jersey. Bain has been in superb form since he took over from Craig Gordon in the Celtic first team, and it would cap an incredible rise for him to be the main Scotland goalkeeper after his release by Aberdeen back in 2011.
Whilst Bain could be a suitable successor to McGregor, the loss of Christie is a massive loss for Scotland after the impact he made in the two Nations League victories last time out. With Callum McGregor also a doubt, it leaves a big hole in the Scotland midfield as we aim to get our campaign off to a flying start. What will give McLeish comfort is that John McGinn is in fine form for Aston Villa, with two goals against Nottingham Forest boosting their Promotion ambitions, and he will be a certainty, barring injury, to start in Christie’s absence.
Up front, however, is still an issue as Scotland are without the injured Steven Fletcher and Steven Naismith, whilst Leigh Griffiths is still on a prolonged break from the game. Oliver Burke has been impressive in his loan spell at Celtic and could well lead the line next week, which would cap a great return to the National team after a two year absence. Johnny Russell is another who could be picked to lead the line though it’s unlikely uncapped Marc McNulty and unimpressive Oli McBurnie will be given a starting berth in Kazakhstan.
Whatever eleven turns out next week will have the hopes of a Nation on their shoulders as we enter a third decade since this nation last graced an International event. The way the Euro 2020 schedule is worked out, Scotland are not only guaranteed two games at Hampden but will likely face England, should they also qualify, as they are in the section where Wembley is also a host city.
The noughties and 2010’s have seen ten major tournaments pass us by and seen Scotland fans be mere neutrals every second year. Let’s hope that the next decade begins with that barren run being ended, and qualification without requiring the backup of a playoff in 12 months time would go down very nicely.