After a thoroughly disappointing start to the qualifying campaign, in which Scotland mustered only four points from their opening four games – including a sub-standard 1-1 draw at home to Lithuania, with the point salvaged in the dying embers of the game – Scotland find themselves in the surprising position of holding their destiny in their own hands going into the final two rounds of group matches.
The equation could not be simpler; beat Slovakia (H) and Slovenia (A) and Scotland should secure a play-off spot for a major tournament for the first time since facing Holland for a place at Euro 2004.
However, since this is Scotland, there are several caveats at play, (1) there is still a possibility that even if Scotland do win both matches they could finish as the 9th best second placed side and therefore not make the play-offs (a position currently held by Wales); (2) the equation might be simple, but executing it will not be as both Slovakia and Slovenia as quality outfits and both are currently above Scotland in the standings; (3) Scotland will be without the drive, energy, passion, and leadership of Scott Brown.
But, as has been the motto for this qualifying campaign, there must be a belief that THIS TIME Scotland can do it, or at least push it to the limits.
First up in the must win double header is Slovakia at Hampden Park on Thursday.
The Slovaks come to Glasgow holding a one point advantage over Scotland and know that a draw could severely dent their host’s chances of progression, while a victory for the visitors would end Scotland’s campaign with a game to spare.
Thursday’s encounter is likely to be a war of attrition with neither side blessed with an abundance of goal scoring talent; Scotland most likely relying on Leigh Griffiths, while Slovakia will look to midfield talisman Marek Hamsik to provide the goals for them.
The game is likely to be won and lost in the midfield making Brown and Armstrong’s absence all the more disappointing from a Scotland perspective. Whoever Strachan picks to fill their void will need to show a willingness to dictate the tempo of the game and match Brown’s leadership and aggressive qualities. Although it is possibly too big a game for both to start, it would be interesting to see how the SPFL Premiership’s on form midfield duo of Callum McGregor and John McGinn cope with the pressures of International football in such a big game; McGregor, of course, having Champions League experience with Celtic may prove to be a wise, albeit belated, inclusion in the squad.
However, despite being rather clichéd, the most important ‘player’ for Scotland could well be the Twelfth Man – the fans. Hampden Park has its detractors – I am one of them, the fans behind the goals are far too far away from the pitch to make it a truly intimidating arena – however, when in full voice, the famous “Hampden Roar” has inspired Scotland to many a famous victory in the past; with any luck, Thursday will be another such occasion.
Scotland will need to be patient I suspect, but another performance of the level of Lithuania away and Scotland have every chance of taking all three points. However, should they play as they did in Trnava last October when Slovakia ran out comfortable 3-0 winners, then it is goodbye to Russia 2018.
By the time this game comes around it could all be academic. Defeat on Thursday against Slovakia and we might as well play the kids in this one and use it as precursor to the Euro2020 qualifiers.
On the plus side, a draw or a win on Thursday means that everything rests on 90 minutes of football and for the first time in yonks the Scotland national side will be involved in game that truly means something; even if in the end the Play-Off’s ultimately end in defeat, getting their would restore a lot of pride in the men’s national game.
Back in March when the sides met at Hampden Park Scotland were simply dreadful. They couldn’t pass, shoot, defend, basically the entire game of football seemed like an alien concept to most in dark blue that night. Yet, somehow, Chris Martin sclaffed in a last minute winner and rejuvenated the side and qualifying campaign.
That result was followed by the heart breaking yet pride restoring draw with England, the best away performance by a Scotland team in too long a time to remember in Lithuania, and a thoroughly professional win against Malta. And now, just a few short months on from groans of ‘Strachan Out’ from some sections of the Tartan Army, we are in a position to talk about this match being a potential Play-Off decider.
Standing in the way of Scotland however will be a Slovenia side that may also still be in the running for second place in the group. Unlike Slovakia, there appears to be more of a goal threat from the Slovenian’s with Tim Matavz and Valter Birsa both capable in front of goal and towering defender Bostjan Cesar a threat at set pieces. At the other end, Jan Oblak of Atletico Madrid, one of the most highly sought after goalkeepers in European football, will be keen to keep Leigh Griffiths and co bay and halt Scotland’s charge.
There’s no easy game at this level and Scotland certainly shouldn’t be expecting an easy ride in their upcoming double header, however, if they want to progress then these are the games that must be won. And, whisper it, they might actually do it.
On the other hand, it is Scotland, so let’s not get too carried away just yet.