ALMOST ten months have passed since Scotland were drawn to play Israel in the Nations League C Section Semi Final, and with it a potential pathway to Euro 2020. In anticipation of the fixture scheduled for March 26, the Tartan Army quickly snapped up tickets to guarantee a first sell out crowd since the England game in 2017.
Eight days prior to the game, the reality of the Coronavirus pandemic hit hard. Not only did UEFA postpone all Nations League playoff matches for the final four spots in Euro 2020, but the Finals themselves were put back by twelve months.
Now the game is going ahead on Thursday night as part of a crazy schedule for the Scots, where they have three home matches over a six day period, with Nations League matches against Slovakia and Czech Republic also being played. Should we overcome Israel, November sees another crazy scenario of three away games in the same period with a playoff final in Norway or Serbia being slotted in alongside trips to Israel and Slovakia.
Frankly, UEFA and FIFA are asking far too much of each nation to ask them to cram in so many international games on top of the domestic season and European competition, where the club fixture list is already congested enough. Even taking out the physical and mental demands of the players out of the equation, the fact that a second wave of COVID is hitting most countries questions the necessity for international football to be played for the remainder of 2020.
In my own personal opinion, which does not represent the views of either SFF Podcast or Football CFB, I firmly believe that the Nations League should’ve been scrapped for 2020/21 and that the Euro 2020 playoffs should’ve been scheduled for March 2021, the same time they would’ve been for this year. At a time when experts are trying to get the virus under control, it would be foolish to risk the spread of infection further by having teams flying all across the continent in a short period of time. Look at the Czech Republic, their entire squad went into self isolation after their win over Slovakia last month and they wanted to postpone the game with Scotland. It was shocking that UEFA told them that the game had to be played, forcing them to get a new squad together and get them ready within two days. Granted, they were very unlucky not to get anything against us in Olomouc, but that scenario should not be allowed. Whilst I get that TV contracts play a part in the thinking, public health comes first and the Nations League, on the grand scheme of things, is not a competition worth risking the spread of a virus.
No crowd impact
UEFA were hopeful that by scheduling the playoffs this month that partial crowds at least would get back in the stadiums having used the Super a Cup as a test event for a 30% capacity at social distance. Unfortunately, the Scottish Government killed any hope of fans going to Hampden for any of the three games by announcing the postponement of their plans to allow partial crowds back in, and put test events on hold despite the fact two domestic matches passed by with no linked cases to the virus.
This has massive consequences on the SFA as they now have to refund 50,000 fans who bought tickets for the Israel match, or ask them to donate to a grassroots initiative instead. For Steve Clarke’s side, it is a huge blow not having the Tartan Army at Hampden for the Semi Final in particular as we try to take a huge step in ending our 22 year absence from a major finals. There’s no doubt that the players would’ve relished a capacity crowd at the National Stadium, which can be soulless when it’s half full let alone nobody there, so not having that 12th man behind them is tough on them.
Points to prove
Regardless of the crowd situation, Clarke is responsible for ensuring his players go on that pitch on a Thursday motivated and knowing their jobs. That wasn’t evident in last months Nations League fixtures against, ironically, Israel and the Czechs. Although the table shows us top of the section with four points, the reality is that we did not play well in either game and only mustered five shots on goal, including two penalties, across the double header. Bearing in mind that Israel are 93rd in the FIFA World Rankings, and that the Czechs fielded largely an Under 21 side, the performances were poor and the results were of good fortune rather than via a good performance.
One of the biggest reasons behind the lacklustre showings was the change to a 3-5-1-1 formation. When Alex McLeish tried this formation in 2018 as a way to get Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney into the team, his side lost four of the five games, including away to Israel. Now Clarke has fallen into this trap based on Tierney’s performances in a back three for Arsenal. We don’t have the personnel for this formation and most play in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 system, which was Clarke’s success at Kilmarnock. Robertson, for example, is a full back who likes overlapping the left sided midfielder, not a wing back who’s job is to do both a full back and left wingers role. If Clarke doesn’t revert back to type, which showed signs of encouragement in the wins against Cyprus and Kazakhstan last November, then there is a big risk that Israel can take advantage of us once more.
Formations are one thing, but they will only work if players step up to the plate. Too many players have not been performing to the capabilities that got them into the squad in the first place, and that affected the teams performances in the last two games. There are decent players in our squad, particularly in midfield, and we can ill afford for them to go missing on Thursday night, and indeed the Nations League games against Slovakia and a Czech Republic.
Whilst we have an abundance of options for midfield, the problems up front remain the same. Lyndon Dykes done well in his first two caps last month and scored in the Czech Republic. However, he is not prolific and his two QPR goals since his £2million move from Livingston have both come from the penalty spot. Lawrence Shankland has only just returned from injury at Dundee United and has very little international exposure, whilst Oliver Burke has yet to get off the mark for his new club. Add to that Leigh Griffiths, who was in great form for Celtic prior to the original scheduled fixture, is still not fit for his club side, and Steven Naismith hasn’t kicked a ball with his clubs side not due to play until this midweek, and it really is a desperate situation in the striking department.
In the case of Oli McBurnie, this is a man with a big point to prove. His withdrawal from the squad last month then appearing for his club side, Sheffield United, in a pre season friendly caused outrage amongst many Scotland fans already questioning his desire after a series of poor performances in the dark blue. Whilst it has since been proven that he was the victim of diabolical communication from the SFA and Steve Clarke for not providing the reasoning across the two days between his withdrawal and consequent friendly appearance, leaving everyone to find out via Sheffield United’s Twitter account, there is no doubt he needs to step up and prove to his critics that he is capable of performing at International level. The concern is that, at the time of writing, he has yet to score for his club side so far this season, so he’ll need to dig even deeper to start winning over the Tartan Army.
It’s been over six months since the Playoff Semi Final was meant to be played. A few factors have went against us, such as an in form Griffiths now out of the picture and no fans being able to get to Hampden. However, that should not deter from the fact that Scotland need to be motivated to get through this tie where much tougher opposition lies in Norway or Serbia.
There maybe a valid argument as to whether any international game should be played right now, but the fact is the schedule is there for everyone and the players will need to get on with it. Euro 2020 is a motivation for many reasons, mainly ending a long barren run without being at a major finals, and with two guaranteed games at Hampden there is an extra incentive to ensure we overcome the Israeli’s. Defeat will not only extend our tournament exile into the World Cup 2022 qualifiers, but the pressure will be on Steve Clarke to see if he will get a chance to lead us on the road to Qatar.