SCOTLAND might be preparing for their first major tournament in 23 years when they play in the delayed Euro 2020 Finals in June 2021, but the quest for the Qatar 2022 World Cup begins now.
In last night’s Qualifying draw, the Scots learned that they will be up against Denmark, Austria, Israel, Faroe Islands and Moldova in their bid to reach the worlds greatest footballing showpiece. The first impressions are that it could’ve been a hell of a lot worse, and the feeling is that there is a genuine chance that Scotland can achieve at least a playoff position from Group F.
When we were all giving our best and worst case scenarios, Denmark from Pot One were most people’s preferred option. This isn’t to say that they’re a bad side, far from it given they are ranked 12th in the World, but when you have the likes of Belgium, France, Spain etc to choose from, the Danes don’t give you the same shiver down your spine feeling.
Denmark were unbeaten in their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, finishing second behind Switzerland, and were runners up in their Nations League A Section behind current world ranking number one side Belgium. Inter Milan midfielder Christian Eriksen is their talisman and Scotland will need to nullify his threat if they are to take anything from the two meetings. Whilst their first seed position should be respected, they are a side Scotland have every chance of taking points from, especially at home.
Austria from Pot Two brings back fond memories of our last successful World Cup qualifying campaign for France ’98, in particular Kevin Gallacher’s double in the 2-0 victory at Parkhead. Whilst the Austrians were far from the weakest sides in Pot Two, they are another side whom there is genuine belief we can take something from. Of course, since France ’98 they have played in a major finals unlike ourselves at Euro 2016, and are also going to Euro 2020, so they can’t be underestimated, particularly with Bayern Munich’s David Alaba amongst their ranks. The double header with the Austrians will be crucial to our chances of a top two position.
Moving onto Pot Four, well there simply could not have been a worse pick than Israel! We have played them far too often recently, five times in the past two years, and have only mustered one win in normal time though we did get past them on penalties in the Nations League playoff Semi Final. Israel are a better side than their 87th FIFA ranking suggests and again showed that last month with that 1-0 victory which denied Scotland promotion to Section A of the Nations League. Eran Zahavi is a player who has caused Scotland problems in the past and he will need to be watched closely if we are to get the two victories that we will need if we are to give ourselves the best chance of going to Qatar.
Moving onto Pot Five, the Faroe Islands were a lot of people’s picks. They may be an improving nation having recently won their Nations League D Section and are up to 107 in the World rankings. However, when you consider recent foes Kazakhstan and a logistically nightmare trip to Azerbaijan as possibilities, the Faroes is a good option. Obviously, there will be reminders of the draw in ’99 and the nightmare of ’02, where we stared defeat in the face before goals from Paul Lambert and Barry Ferguson dug Berti Vogts side out of a hole, but if Scotland are to qualify then we MUST take six points from this double header.
Not many would’ve jumped on Moldova as the preferred option from Pot Six, not because we fear them but because you had the likes of San Marino and Malta in there. We will want to exercise any ghosts of our last visit there in 2004, a 1-1 draw that spelled the end of Vogts’s reign. Placed 177th in the World Rankings, only three European sides sit below Moldova, so there simply is no excuse for any dropped points from these matches.
For once, Scotland have a more favourable draw and recent performances under Steve Clarke give us reason to be optimistic for the campaign. Of course, there are no easy games and the Danes, Austrians and Israeli’s will feel the same, and we can’t get carried away because we’ve reached one tournament. However, that first qualification for a major finals in 22 and a half years will be a major boost to the players, who will be fired up for the first round of fixtures in March. With 23 Euro 2020 places up for grabs, there is plenty of motivation for the players to, not only cement their Finals spot, but to help the Scots to get their Qatar 2022 bid off to a flying start.
Hopefully by then, we’ll start to see increased crowds getting back into grounds and that Hampden, providing there is at least one home game scheduled, will be, at the very least, open to 30% capacity (around 15,000). That should be more than achievable by March with the Coronavirus vaccine being rolled out this week and the potential of numbers coming down, which should allow more restrictions to be lifted. Whilst public health during a pandemic should remain number one priority, the Scottish Government have got to be more flexible and consider easing restrictions on football crowds, especially as all test events so far have been successfully run with no linked cases to Covid. Let’s hope that some Tartan Army can be at Hampden by then and that the stadium can be full for the Euros, which will be a boost to the economy as a whole given Scotland’s involvement.
So the road to Qatar is mapped out with some intriguing trips for the Tartan Army in store and, more importantly, winnable games if we play to our potential. If we can carry on the momentum that Steve Clarke had built, and not be too downbeat from the last two Nations League defeats, then there is good reason to believe that we can qualify for a second consecutive tournament.
Did we ever think we’d say that again?