An Auld Story Before the Auld Enemy

Posted on by K Kujawa

It’s all gone a bit flat, hasn’t it?

We waited 23 years to see Scotland in a major tournament again, and in the end it was like we had never been away. I don’t think I felt any different at the end of Monday’s game against the Czechs as I did at the end of the Morocco game in France 98.

Back then I felt like we didn’t put in the performance that we were capable of doing. This week I felt exactly the same. All over the park there were problems of our own making.

Scotland started well enough, with the Andy Robertson shot probably being the highlight of our first half. But by that point I was already a little concerned with some of the things that were happening on the park. Ryan Christie jinking his way past Czech players only to be stopped by Stephen O’Donnell was a big warning sign for me. The fact that throw ins all seemed to be going for the Czechs as well had me slightly concerned that maybe the breaks weren’t with us.

Of course, the doubts were already creeping in the minute we all looked at the lineup and the name of Kieran Tierney was completely missing. There had been no word of any injury in the lead up to the game, and now we were suddenly missing one of our best players for a crucial game. Robertson tried to fill that hole, and credit to him he was probably one of the few positives to take from Monday’s match, but that could only work for so long because now it was almost all on him.

Elsewhere on the park, John McGinn was kept quiet as the Czechs clearly identified him as a big threat. We have to give them credit for that at least. McGinn didn’t do anything wrong, he just wasn’t allowed to do anything.

The first goal came after a series of corners, none of which were actually any good. But the Czechs got to all of the second balls, and most crucially they were more or less unmarked for the second phase which allowed the cross to come in for the opening goal. That really had to be stopped far earlier, because the header itself came from a guy towering over the likes of Grant Hanley. When that header was placed inch perfect in the corner it’s far too late. You have to stop the cross.

VAR didn’t help us much either. I’m not one to get caught up in refereeing decisions that go against us when our own performance is the real issue, but I still don’t know how Scott McTominay didn’t win a penalty at the end of the first half! From what I could see, the defender just wiped him out and got nowhere near the ball. At a guess, they’ve interpreted it as the defender just standing his ground, but that seems incredibly generous when he had to move into position to do that!

Scotland didn’t start the second half great either. Christie, who went pretty quiet after O’Donnell stopped him although he did play the pass for the Robertson shot, was replaced by Che Adams and after a couple of minutes of heart in the mouth disruption at the back we suddenly seemed to be getting somewhere again. Adams was more effective in the first five minutes of the second half than Lyndon Dykes was the entire game. You could possibly attribute that to the fact that we now had two strikers on the park instead of one, but it wasn’t a different shape. The big chance Dykes had in the second half was hit far too close to the keeper’s legs and made it easy for him and you wonder how it might have been if it had fallen to Adams instead.

It was actually Jack Hendry who got Scotland’s best chance as he hit the bar from the edge of the box. Shooting from there was definitely the right choice and he was unlucky to see the effort come back out, but a couple of minutes later Hendry’s decision making would cost us dearly as he tried a shot from further out that was never, ever on.

That shot broke incredibly kindly for the Czechs and Schick only needed a single touch just inside Scotland’s half. But what a touch. Spotting that David Marshall was, bizarrely, almost up at the centre circle when Scotland had possession and now desperately scrambling back to his goal line, Schick hit a shot that a golfer would be proud of given the draw on the ball. Or is it fade, I’m not sure. Pretty sure it’s draw since he hit it with his left foot and it went right to left. Either way, the ball curled towards the goal and into the top corner, with Marshall scrambling back.

The game was dead and buried there.

Scotland continued to make changes in personnel as the game progressed, but it was the exact same shape throughout. Ryan Fraser came on at the same time as Callum McGregor, replacing a quiet Stuart Armstrong and Hendry. That sounds like a change in shape, but dropping McTominay into defence made sure it wasn’t.

Kevin Nesbit and James Forrest were introduced for O’Donnell and Dykes. Again, the subs looked like they might improve things individually, but Scotland just didn’t click at the right time and the Czechs were able to last ditch block everything we threw at them. If you need any kind of indication of how everything broke for the Czechs, their goalkeeper managed to scrambled away their own deflection to avoid the own goal. If that had been us you know the ball was going to end up in our net.

The stats are pretty damning. Scotland had 19 shots to the Czechs 10. But only 4 of ours were on target whilst they had 7. The shots we did get on target were probably too close to their goalkeeper, while they’ve clearly taken their chances. I had a good laugh at the ridiculous stat of “expected goals” that had Scotland over 2 and the Czechs less than 1. I’ve yet to understand what that stat is for other than showing who’s a diddy and who’s jammy. It seems too have shown both quite clearly in this game.

The result leaves us in real danger of going out at the group stage as usual. We already look resigned to hoping we can get through in third spot at best. While it’s possible to progress in third place with just two points, it’s also possible that three points wouldn’t be enough – ask Turkey and Albania how Euro 2016 went.

We won’t know for sure until it’s too late, and we won’t even have a real understanding of where it’s heading until after the second round of fixtures is completed on Saturday evening. All we can do now is try to take at least four points from both of our remaining two games and that will almost certainly be enough to get through – although even that is a guess at this point.

It means that our next fixture at Wembley against the Auld Enemy is one where we now know that we need to try and get something. This is no free hit any more as some like Charlie Nicholas are still suggesting.

Will Tierney be back for it? I’m concerned that Steve Clarke is only saying he has a chance whereas he seemed more confident earlier in the week. Getting Tierney back might be crucial and could make all the difference. It would give a lift to the team and the fans for a start, but it would also give a better balance to the team too. It remains to be see whether we make a few more changes, but you have to think Adams ahead of Dykes is a real possibility at the very least. You also wonder if a change of goalkeeper might be in the offing now that poor David Marshall has gone from national hero to worldwide meme. That can’t be good for his confidence.

Is it time to take a few more chances and bring in people like Nathan Patterson, David Turnbull and Billy Gilmour? They all impressed in friendlies and now there are clear arguments for them and against players in their positions who didn’t impress on Monday. That might sound harsh, but there’s only three group matches and one of those is already gone. We don’t have time in this group to allow for poor performances in the hope that the next game will be better. We know all too much from the last 23 years how damaging a single bad performance can be in qualifying – well that is even more acutely clear in the finals.

England got the job done on Sunday against Croatia without being impressive, but you know they’ll be up for the game against us. They want to win this group and stay at Wembley as much as possible throughout the tournament. You suspect with one win under their belts already the pressure has eased a little and they’ll be able to play a little more freely than the more cagey opening match. They are more than capable of causing us serious problems.

For us to have any chance of getting something from this game, we have to be clinical and we have to cut out the silly mistakes. We need everyone playing as we know they can, and we need to take our chance when they come. If we have one positive from Monday’s game it’s that we know we can create them so those chances will come.

I’m inclined to say that we need to forget who it is we are playing, but actually in this instance it’s probably better that we don’t. When you are playing your historic rivals, that should give you a lift. You give that extra effort, you push it more, but you have to do it with the right temperament and that’s the fine line that Clarke has to get over to the players. No fear, but no foul. This game will be difficult enough with eleven men on the park.

We don’t want to look back at Euro 2020 and think of what could have been, or that we were only there to make up the numbers and we should be thankful that we were even there at all after 23 years. I’m pretty sure many of us have thought that the disappointment of Monday wasn’t worth it and it would have been better if we hadn’t qualified at all – actually all that does is bring the same disappointment forward. I’d still rather lose 2-0 to the Czechs in the finals than 2-0 to Georgia in qualifying.

There was a lot of hope and even expectation around our opening match, that feels a lifetime ago now. The expectation is all but gone now, but we’re still hoping for something at Wembley that can ignite our campaign. Something that will ram the 1,314 replays of Paul Gascoigne’s Euro 96 goal that we’ve had to endure this week right back down their throats!

No doubt by 8pm tonight we’ll all once more believe that we can, even if it’s now no longer believing that we will. Hopefully by 10pm we’re right back on the believing we will train again!