FRIDAY the thirteenth wasn’t such an unlucky day in Scotland. Thanks to the events of the night before in Serbia, the nation forgot about Coronavirus and its ill-effect on the world and celebrated the men’s National team’s first qualification for a major international tournament since 1998.
You could see how much it meant to this group of players to end that long wait and reach the delayed Euro 2020 Finals. From Ryan Christie’s emotional post-match interview, through “I Can Boogie” in the dressing room, to the David Marshall conga in the team hotel. Those images captured the hearts of the nation and they were right to lap up every minute of what they had achieved.
But now it’s time for Steve Clarke’s men to come down,momentarily, from cloud nine as there is the small matter of another Nations League to finish off. As Tartan Scarf blogger Gordon Sheach pointed out, this is one with potentially greater prospects over the next four years. Just two points from the final two matches away to Slovakia and Israel will ensure that we gain promotion to Section A for the 2022 competition, alongside the carat of a playoff for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar should we need it.
Not only does promotion earn Scotland the chance to mix it with the elite European nations, but it will likely earn us, at least, another playoff opportunity for Euro 2024 in Germany given that most Section A sides are likely qualify automatically. In addition, we are looking at the potential of moving up to pot two for the upcoming World Cup qualifying draw, though we need other results to go our way in addition to picking up maximum points on the road.
There is no doubt that Clarke will have the players focussed on the task ahead and, despite the physical exertions from Thursday night, will unlikely make wholesale changes ahead of the key game in Bratislava tomorrow afternoon. He will no doubt consider fatigue from the heroics in Belgrade, and, in the case of Lyndon Dykes, suspension enforces at least one change, but he will not want to lose momentum and recognises the significance three points brings us, meaning the trip to Israel could see the luxury of wholesale changes knowing that the job is done.
For me, and I’m not trying to do Steve Clarke’s job here (there’s a reason he’s doing the job and I’m doing podcasts and articles), I think three changes will be made. One of Scott McTominay or Declan Gallagher could make way for Scott McKenna to come into the back three, Stuart Armstrong could come in for Callum McGregor, who had his best Scotland performance in Serbia, and Oli McBurnie replacing the suspended Dykes. Of course, there will be calls for Leigh Griffiths to start but I think the fact McBurnie is a target man and Griffiths is still building up his match sharpness after fitness issues will sway Clarke’s thinking towards the Sheffield United frontman.
Whatever the team, Scotland face a tough match against a Slovakian side also on a high having sealed their place at Euro 2020 by defeating Northern Ireland after extra time in Belfast.Whilst we did beat them at Hampden last month, and they have failed to win any of their Nations League matches so far in this years competition, they should not be underestimated and Marek Hamsik in particular is a talent we will need to nullify in order to get a result. Also, they did win the last time we played on Slovakian territory, a 3-0 win back in 2016 that proved significant in our failed bid to reach the 2018 World Cup, so this will not be an easy place for us to get the three points.
Scotland are currently on a nine game unbeaten run and would love to extend that to ten, a feat that hasn’t been achieved for 93 years (thanks Ian Crocker for tweeting this statistic). There is a feel good factor being generated right now and the nation is believing again thanks to Steve Clarke installing belief into this group that they can produce on the International stage. Winning our Section B group and securing the fallback of a World Cup 2022 playoff would be the icing on the cake in a month where Scotland finally qualified for a major tournament after a 22 and a half year wait. Euro 2020 can be put on the shelf for now, getting the results in Slovakia and Israel are an immediate priority.