We’ve got our buzz back.
Scotland went to Wembley on Friday evening and were the better team on the night. When you’re coming away from a game where you need to get a point, you get that point, and you’re actually disappointed you weren’t able to get all three then you know something has gone right.
After Monday there was a lot of pressure on this Scotland squad to show what it’s capable of doing. Against the Czechs there were disappointing individual performances and questions around the lineup and formation. After Friday there is none of that.
Marshall saved what he had to save. The defence of McTominay, Hanley and Tierney were pretty much solid. McGinn was more in this game than he was on Monday and that was even after an annoying booking that maybe affected him just a bit too much for him to be 100% effective. Dykes and Adams were winning balls up top.
But I think the one man who should be singled out here is Stephen O’Donnell. The criticism he got on Monday was deserved, he didn’t have a good game at all. But he deserves immense credit for not just putting that behind him but going out there against England and having a great game. The volley in the first half particularly was wonderfully struck and a good save was needed to keep it out. We were unlucky that the rebound just didn’t fall for Adams to head into the empty net.
But as good as O’Donnell was throughout the game, the 75 minutes of Billy Gilmour was so good he got man of the match. We need to stop worrying about the age of our players, Gilmour ran the show in that midfield. Always showing for the ball, finding all his passes, totally unphased by the enormity of this game.
So, of course it was a massive blow yesterday to find out he’s tested positive for covid-19 and will isolate throughout not only this crucial last group match but would also be missing from the last sixteen should we make it to the promise land. I guess we should be thankful that he somehow isn’t a close contact of anyone else in the squad, although I’m increasingly at a loss to explain how that all works.
So what other positives – if you’ll pardon the pun – can we see? As good as Gilmour was on Friday, if you look at raw numbers, Callum McGregor was even better! If last Monday’s game was a struggle to find players who had really stepped up when we needed them to, Friday was a struggle to find anything to criticise. That’s how we wanted this tournament to be – give it all and see where it gets us.
We had our chances to win this game. Dykes effort off the line (although I’m not sure it wasn’t going wide), Adams lashing a shot at the back post over the bar, a couple of other half chances that England managed to block. But we couldn’t get it, and there is a little disappointment in that.
But let’s not forget that this tournament is setup for England to do well. They have all home games in the group. They might do almost all the way to the final should they get that far if they go on to win this group.
And yet England were second best in this game. It speaks volumes that they hooked their captain Harry Kane as he just wasn’t in the game at all. They were booed off the park at half time and full time. Yet there is that feeling they we were a little lucky. The early Stones header that came back off the post. The Sterling fall that had us wondering if VAR would rule it was a trip when really he fell over himself.
The question now is was this a good point or a missed opportunity for all three? We won’t know the answer to that until after we’ve played Croatia.
The draw against England makes it very simple for us. If we don’t beat Croatia, we finish bottom of the group and we are out. A draw isn’t enough, they have a better goal difference. We simply have to win and get onto four points.
Then it becomes a little more interesting because the other game matters. If it’s a draw between England and the Czech Republic, then they both finish of five points with the Czechs topping the group on goal difference ahead of England. If England win, they top the group and we finish third behind the Czechs because of the head to head. If the Czechs win, then it comes down to goal difference between us and England. A couple of 2-0 wins would see us finish second ahead of England!
Remember, second place is guaranteed to go through to the knockout stages. Third place depended on how the other groups finish. Given we haven’t scored a goal yet, we’ve pretty much spent the last two days hoping that other teams finishing third don’t finish on four points!
It didn’t start well. Group A saw both Wales and Switzerland finish on four points, with the Welsh going through in second place on goal difference. The Swiss had done just enough against Turkey to ensure that to finish ahead of them in the third place rankings then we would need to not just beat Croatia but do so by two goals.
However, it got better in Group B and C. The earlier kick off between Austria and Ukraine saw our World Cup qualification rivals win 1-0 to take second spot in the group on six points and leave Ukraine sitting on just three. The later kick offs resulted in Belgium running away with the group and all three teams behind them – Denmark, Russia and Finland – on just three points. Denmark taking second on goal difference ahead of Finland.
Those results yesterday mean that Switzerland are the first third placed team through, and actually also guarantee that England are through regardless of what happens tonight.
Most importantly though, it means if there is a winner at Hampden tonight, regardless of what the score is, then that winner will join the Czech Republic and England in the last sixteen. Win, and we’re through. Our fate is in our hands. We can get through this group without relying on anyone else.
But first we have to actually beat Croatia. That’s World Cup runners up Croatia. That 14th best in the Fifa world rankings Croatia. That’s 2018 Balon D’or winning Luka Modrić’s Croatia.
Croatia are not the same team they were three years ago, that’s true. But they’re still a team with talent, a team who have been there and done it, a team with just as much to play for in this game as we do. They have a point after their 1-1 draw with the Czechs on Friday. Their goal difference is a goal better than ours, so they only need to win and then they’ll even be better off than the Swiss. A draw might keep them above us, but on two points you rather suspect that won’t be enough to progress. So they need to beat us as much as we need to beat them.
The thing that Croatia have going against them is that they haven’t actually beaten Scotland in their history. As unbelievable as that might seem, since they joined FIFA in 1992 and UEFA in 1993, they’ve played Scotland five times. In qualifying for World Cup 2002, there was a 1-1 draw in Croatia where Kevin Gallacher equalised after Alen Boksić had given them the lead, and a 0-0 draw in Scotland. A friendly in 2008 also finished 1-1, with Kenny Miller levelling the game after Niko Kranjčar had given Croatia the lead. But the two games in qualifying for World Cup 2014 both finished in wins for Scotland. Robert Snodgrass got the only goal of a 1-0 win in Croatia, while at Hampden it was another Snodgrass goal as well as a Steven Naismith making it 2-0.
And that’s probably more important than most. That shows we can do exactly what we need to do, and we did that back then with the likes of Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida and Luka Modrić in the team just as they were against the Czechs on Friday.
We have an extremely hard task in front of us. England could only beat Croatia 1-0 last week. The Czechs, who obviously beat us already, could only draw with them. As I said earlier, we haven’t scored a goal in the tournament yet, but at least now we know that one will be enough if we don’t let them score!
And it hasn’t escaped my attention that the last time we were in a major tournament, we lost the first game, drew the second and got all excited about the third game before getting absolutely pumped. I really hope that’s not the case again this time.
It’s going to be a long wait until 8pm tonight. I must admit I’m a little apprehensive as to what curve ball we might see during the day given the news of Gilmour’s positive covid test yesterday.
It’s going to be an even longer couple of hours after that if it proves to be a tight affair as we might expect it to be.
I’m excited, apprehensive, nervous, buzzing, and probably a hundred more emotions on top of that. I know from too many times in the past how horribly it can go wrong. The past 23 years have been painful at just the wrong time in qualifying all too often. Switzerland in 1954, Sweden in 1958, West Germany in 1974, Argentina in 1978, Spain in 1982, Mexico in 1986, Italy in 1990, Sweden in 1992, England in 1996, France in 1998, the Netherlands in 2017 and France in 2019. In each of those past twelve tournaments across the men’s and women’s game, our campaign has ended after the final group game.
But it doesn’t have to end that way again.
I know we can do this, we all know we can do this! If we play more like the second game and less like the first, then we can do it. If we get the breaks we didn’t get in the first game and got a little in the second game, that will help us do it.
So there’s one thing we want you to do, Scotland.