LAST night was Scotland’s last chance of clawing back any chance of qualifying for Euro 2020 through the conventional route. Having suffered the calamity of Kazakhstan, we needed three points against Russia to be in the running for a top two position in Group I.
After a bright beginning when John McGinn netted eleven minutes in, there was a sense of inevitability when the Russians turned the game on its head to leave Hampden with a 2-1 victory. That early swagger we had disappeared, players kept giving the ball away, others drifted out of the game and the lack of ability in certain areas was glaring. Russia, Quarter Finalists in their World Cup last year, took full advantage.
It was yet another reality check of where we are as a Nation. This was the second best side in the group and they were streets ahead of us, technically and mentally, and we were lucky to get away with a 2-1 defeat, David Marshall ensured it wasn’t worse with some key saves to keep us in the contest. However, we couldn’t create another clear cut opportunity to get that equaliser, which could’ve made the finale more interesting but even a point wouldn’t have been enough given the Kazakhstan result.
So where did it go wrong last night?
Steve Clarke bemoaned the fact we stopped doing what worked well for us in the opening 20-25 minutes. We were playing with an intensity, we were coping defensively, pressed in the right areas and caused Russia some problems. Then for some reason it stopped, leaving Clarke wondering if the problem was down to quality or mentality.
Evidence would point to the latter when you consider the trio we had in the middle of the park. Scott McTominay has been a regular in the Manchester United team, Callum McGregor is an accomplished player at Celtic both domestically and in European matches, whilst John McGinn has taken the step up to Premier League football like duck to water. However, they seem to suffer as much as anyone when they pull on the dark blue and you wonder if the pressure of playing International football is a burden on them?
Whilst McGinn scored and looked lively in the opening quarter of the game, he disappeared after that and barely touched the ball before being hooked. McGregor had a poor game and was culpable of many wayward passes, not his composed self. McTominay was given the sponsors man of the match but his failure to stay with his man contributed to the equaliser.
At the back, it was the usual story but with yet another different centre back pairing. Stephen O’Donnell, a good right back at Scottish Premiership level, has too often looked like a fish out of water at International level and was caught out far too often whenever the Russians went forward. Yet the question is who is the alternative? This sums up a big problem area for Clarke that can only be fixed whenever a right back of better quality comes through. Skipper Andy Robertson also had one of his poorer games, his crossing was not its usual high standard and, like O’Donnell, was caught out of position far too often.
The new centre back pairing of Charlie Mulgrew and Liam Cooper was always going to be problematic, especially coming up against man mountain Artem Dzubya. On the whole, they did ok though Cooper was attracted to the ball in the build up to the equaliser, though this was mainly down to McTominay letting his man run off him. Mulgrew did well to prevent a late shot from reaching the back of the net but his lack of pace is a problem at International level. The fact he came into this game having barely featured at Wigan, where he is on loan from Blackburn, is a concern.
At the other end, the attacking options didn’t deliver. Oliver McBurnie’s £20m transfer from Swansea to Sheffield United raised many eyebrows, and yet again he failed to deliver in a Scotland shirt. It didn’t help that the supply to him was poor but he wasn’t winning many headers or holding up the ball, which would give defenders a breather. On the wings, James Forrest had a very poor game and barely contributed before being subbed, whilst Ryan Fraser fleeted in and out the game and lost the ball that led to the Russians winner.
The result left fans disappointed and some questioning if the players really care enough about the National Team. My impression when the players came out to face the media was that they were as gutted and disappointed, particularly Robertson who berated the fact we allowed Russia to creep into the game. When I spoke to Liam Cooper, who was making his debut, the pride of winning his first Scotland cap was completely overshadowed by the defeat that leaves Scotland with a mountain to climb if we are going to overhaul the Russians into second place. You can hear the disappointment in his voice by clicking the link to the interview at the bottom of this blog.
Six points behind at the midway point means Scotland have a lot of work to do if we are going to qualify for Euro 2020 through the conventional route. From the last five games, realistically we need to win four and take a minimum of a point at home to one of the best teams in World Football in Belgium – and even that might not be enough to overtake Russia! With Belgium on Monday then a trip to Moscow in October, it is a huge ask.
Realistically, we are looking to the Nations League Playoff in March and it is all about building some form of momentum going into that Semi Final, scheduled to be against Finland. However, with the Finns looking on course for automatic qualification, it is likely that Bulgaria will be the visitors to Hampden vying for a Final slot against Serbia or Norway, with the winners going to Euro 2020.
With the carat of guaranteeing two matches at Hampden in next summers finals, the pressure is on Steve Clarke to get momentum building ahead of these playoffs and end a 22 year wait for a major Finals appearance. Lessons need to be learned quickly from the Russia game in terms of building on a solid start and not letting that standard drop, otherwise it will end with the same disappointment as last night.
For the players, it’s time for them to start showing more belief and that they are not burdened with the hope and expectations that goes with wearing the dark blue jersey.
Liam Cooper Interview
Liam Cooper was speaking to Tartan Army Magazine, where the full will be published in the next edition. Please find the latest free online magazine by visiting https://tartanarmymagazine.com