WHEN Scotland games come around, they should come with a health warning!
No matter how many times they put us through the mill, they find a new way to toy with our emotions, and Saturday’s crucial Euro 2020 qualifier against Cyprus.
As it looked as though they were going to have a draw snatched from the jaws of victory, Oli Burke reacted to his own header off the post to clinch a much needed victory, bringing a mixture of joy and relief within the Tartan Army.
With all that mixture of emotion, what has Steve Clarke let himself in for?
It was Clarke’s first match as National Team Manager since he took over from Alex McLeish, and the pressure on the players was enormous after the humiliation in Kazakhstan and an unconvincing performance in San Marino, leading to McLeish’s sacking. Although most Scotland fans are happy at Clarke’s appointment following his impressive job at Kilmarnock, a home crowd of little more than 30,000 is an indicator that there is still apathy with the National Team, and that it’s going to take more than a managerial change to bring fans back to Hampden, even on a Saturday night.
Clarke’s first team selection brought in one or two surprises. He reintroduced David Marshall, mysteriously discarded by McLeish, as number one at the expense of Scott Bain, brought back Charlie Mulgrew to partner Scott McKenna at centre back, and gave Eamonn Brophy his debut as the lone striker. Overall, there wasn’t much argument over the starting line up.
The first half was very abject and it’s clear that the players, all playing consistently well at club level, feel the burden of wearing the dark blue jersey. There was no ammunition, too many safe passes and Brophy was often isolated in attack. A free kick from Mulgrew that was saved, and a header from Brophy that went wide, were all that we created from that first 45 minutes.
Into the second period, and again Scotland were being frustrated by a resilient Cypriot defence and the Tartan Army were beginning to get restless. Step forward Andy Robertson! Fresh from his success in the Champions League Final with Liverpool, the skipper picked up the ball around twenty yards from goal and arrowed a stunning strike into the top corner to open the scoring.
There was a little improvement in the performance after that and we should’ve had the game wrapped up when Stephen O’Donnell found himself one on one with the Cyprus keeper. However, the right back put his effort wide of the target. Ryan Fraser also had an effort that was well saved before the five minutes of madness that saw victory slip away then clawed back again, sending the Tartan Army home relieved and exhausted after being put through the mill yet again.
Had it not been for Burke’s late intervention, Scotland’s hopes of automatic qualification next years Finals, where Hampden is one of 13 host venues, would’ve almost certainly evaporated. Now we are back in contention for one of the top two spots that would avoid the playoff scenario in March, which is guaranteed thanks to our Nations League results.
The win also relieves pressure on the side as they travel to one of the Worlds best side in Belgium!
Contrasting the away matches that proved to be the furthest away and easiest to contest, at Kazakhstan and San Marino, respectively, Tuesday night’s run will unquestionably be the shortest trip traveled for the most difficult test, as the Belgian side are by far the favourites to win the group.
Fresh from a comfortable 3-0 win over Kazakhstan, and with talisman Eden Hazard buoyant from his big money move to Real Madrid, the Belgians are in formidable form, so the task facing the Scots is enormous. Scotland will also be smarting from a comprehensive 4-0 home loss to their opponents in September. Even though it was a friendly, and the formation is different to the flawed 3-5-1-1 adopted nine months ago, lessons need to be learned otherwise another hiding is on the cards.
The fact we’re up against a side who have aspirations to lift the trophy in a years time will mean the pressure is off the Scots slightly, and any points picked up will be a bonus. However, with the Kazakhstan debacle still hanging over us like a bad smell, picking up something in Brussels will be welcomed to make up for that shortfall, and give the players a real shot in the arm at their chances of automatic qualification.
During his 19 months at Kilmarnock, Steve Clarke masterminded his side to six victories and five draws over both halves of the Old Firm. Picking up something in Belgium would exceed those achievements and install new belief into his group of players that they are capable of avoiding the Playoff scenario and split the Belgians and Russia in this section.
With the pair coming to Hampden in September, a positive result would attract more fans back to the National Stadium with that added belief that Scotland can deliver the results they need to breathe real life into their campaign. It’s a tall order, and the performance against Cyprus suggests that there is a lot of improvement to be made if we are going to end Belgium’s 100% record.
Three points against the Cypriots were essential, therefore the minimal objective from this double header for Scotland has been made. A bonus result against one of the Worlds best sides would really build up the feel good factor Steve Clarke is hoping to create to end 21 years of waiting for Scotland to reach a major international tournament.