LESS than 90 days to go until Scotland’s 23 year wait to kick a ball at a major international tournament will be over. Ever since that dramatic night in Serbia on 12 November, the excitement to the delayed Euro 2020 Finals is building as the nation gets ready to support our own side at a major finals and not just who is England’s opposition (coincidentally, we will be one of those opposition sides this time).
Whilst we’re all counting down to 14 June 2021 when we face Czech Republic at, as things still stand, Hampden, we have a crucial round of matches coming up this week. Such is these strange times that Scotland are playing World Cup qualifiers as part of a build up for the European Championships instead of friendlies, and that it’s a triple-header we are in and not the traditional double-header. The fact the Euro’s themselves are in an odd year is bizarre, but then the impact caused by the Coronavirus pandemic a year ago has made life somewhat bizarre to say the least.
Bizarre it may be, but the fact is there are three crucial World Cup qualifiers on the horizon. First up is second seeded Austria at Hampden on Thursday, followed by yet another trip to recent foes Israel on Sunday, before rounding off the triple bill with a return to Hampden to welcome the Faroe Islandsnext Wednesday. Three games in six days, nine points at stake and the chance to lay down a marker in our quest to reach a first World Cup in a quarter of a century.
Austria brings back fond memories of that last successful qualification campaign we negotiated. They were in our group and we managed to take four points from the two games against them, including a 2-0 win at Celtic Park when Kevin Gallacher netted a double, including a screamer of a second goal that I personally rank as one of my favourite Scotland goals ever. A repeat outcome would be the ideal way to get our World Cup qualifying campaign up and running.
Of course, the Austrian side of today are a handy outfit. They qualified for this summers Euro’s fairly convincingly in second place behind Poland and won their recent Nations League group ahead of Norway, which is likely to give them the guarantee of a playoff to fall back on should they not make the top two in this section. But any suggestion they will take their foot off the gas with that safety net can quickly be quashed as they have named a full strength squad, including 19 German based players after Germany lifted quarantine restrictions on residents travelling to and from the UK.
However, if we are to be in, at worst, second place and a playoff position of our own, we need to be looking for maximum points from this game given we are at home. Having no home crowd is a blow, particularly as Austria will have fans for the return clash in September, but Scotland have come a long way under Clarke and we have the players capable of beating Austria to get us off to a good start.
Victory at Hampden would then put the players in a good frame of mind going to Israel. It’s incredible that the two sides hadn’t met for 32 years between 1986 and 2018, now they’re getting sick of the sight of each other as they prepare to meet for the sixth time in three years, and fourth time inside six months!
We are well aware that Israel are a better side than their current World Ranking of 87 would suggest, especially as we have only beaten them once in those previous five matches in ninety minutes and lost both away matches. However, they are also a side that can be got at and Scotland are long overdue an away win against a direct rival for the top two spots, something that, arguably, hasn’t been achieved since France in 2008. A win in Israel would definitely lay down a marker that Scotland mean business in our bid to reach the finals in Qatar next winter.
From one current foe to an old foe as its back to Hampden to face the Faroe Islands. Of course, when you think of the Faroes, you immediately think of being 2-0 down at half time in Toftir in 2002 before Paul Lambert and Barry Ferguson pulled Berti Vogts out a hole early into his reign. You might also want to flick back to the last time they visited in a competitive game in 2006, when a comprehensive 6-0 got that memorable Euro 2008 qualifying campaign off to a flyer where we came agonisingly close to reaching the finals.
Nowadays, the Faroes are an improving nation having won their Nations League D group to win promotion to League Cand sitting just outside the top 100, so they shouldn’t be dismissed easily. That said, they are still a side we should be looking to defeat quite comfortably, and nothing less will be accepted by the Tartan Army. You would also expect Clarke to make some, not multiple, changes to his line up to give some of his squad the chance to nail down their place in the 23 man squad for the Euro’s.
Importance of a good start
Talk amongst most fans is that seven points out of nine would be a good return and get us off to a good start. Whilst that may be the case, I personally think it’s imperative that the players don’t adopt that mentality and target maximum points. Too often, the “a draw will do” mentality in certain games in the past has come back to bite Scotland in qualifying campaigns, and the best way to put us in contention for a first World Cup Finals since France ’98 is to win as many games as we can.
Obviously, it is a tough task to get nine points from these three games, especially the opening two, but this is also an opportunity to lay down a marker by taking maximum points from two of our three main rivals in the group for a top two position. We also don’t want to be in the position of playing catch-up too early, especially given that September sees away trips to Denmark and Austria, so having points on the board becomes more crucial.
With places in the Euro 2020 squad up for grabs, there is plenty of motivation for these players to go out and perform, and three World Cup qualifiers are better preparation than pre-tournament friendlies. Steve Clarke has built a feel good factor across the nation that has been emphasised by ending the 23 year tournament hoodoo, he’ll be wanting for that to continue by leading Scotland to Qatar 2022 as well, starting with three wins in six crucial days for the National Team.