Face the music - Scotland must stay on the dancefloor in Israel
Scotland are clocking up the miles as they enter the final leg of a three-game series. The squad touched down in Ben Gurion airport on Monday night as they prepare for a Nations League clash against Israel that has taken on plenty of significance.
A journey that started in Edinburgh a week ago, then Belgrade, via Bratislava to Trnava will end in the coastal town of Netanya, 30kms north of their base in Tel Aviv, on Wednesday night when they face a team all too familiar to them. Scotland and Israel will clash for the fifth time in two years, a remarkable number by international football standards.
This meeting is not quite as important as their rendezvous last month in Glasgow, when penalty kicks were required to separate them. Scotland’s 5-3 triumph in the shoot-out paved the way for last week’s Euro 2020 qualification in Serbia and also gave the squad that bit of extra belief that they could reach a major tournament.
However, a win over Israel on Wednesday night opens up another door for Steve Clarke and his men. They would top their Nations League group without having to rely on Slovakia taking points off the Czech Republic. Promotion to League A, and future meetings with Europe’s elite, would come, as would a near-guaranteed play-off for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Keep playing that tune
There is also the question of momentum. After Thursday night, the whole nation was downloading Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, a 70s hit by Baccara which has shot up the iTunes chart. The defeat by Slovakia on Sunday was absorbed somewhat by the feelgood factor mixed in with a strong performance, but failure to negotiate this group having gone into its concluding matches in such a strong position would be an issue. Scissor Sisters’ I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ might be a better soundtrack should such a scenario pan out.
Clarke knows that as well as anyone. “I interrupted the players’ celebrations the other night just to have five minutes of serious chat,” he said in the wake of beating Serbia. “I thanked them for their efforts, players and staff, and also reminded them that we have qualified for Euro 2020 and we can now park that one in the cupboard.
“It gives us something to look forward to next summer. But now it’s about the next tournament. The next tournament is Qatar 2022 and we want to be involved in that too. We know better than anybody now surely how important these Nations League games are.”
Strongest team for stuffy opponents
Israel have proved obdurate opponents over the past two years, but this is a country Scotland should be looking to vanquish considering the current landscape. Israel have only won one of their past eight matches – last month away in Slovakia – and while fighting to avoid relegation to League C, have no chance of making the play-offs. Eran Zahavi adds a sprinkling of stardust, but they are functional rather than flamboyant. Three of their players in Hibs goalkeeper Ofir Marciano and Celtic defenders Nir Bitton and Hatem Abd Elhamed, the latter of whom is suspended for Wednesday, are well-known to Scotland. Israel don’t come with many surprises.
Scotland need to find a way through them this time around. It’s not just future hopes that are on the line, but a requirement to keep this warm, fuzzy football feeling that has left a nation inebriated on success. The excitement of taking part in next year’s European Championships will not vanish should Scotland fail to win this group, but with their next match not pencilled in until March next year, it would leave a trilogy that started with a bang end with a bit of whimper.
Having rotated his squad, Clarke is very likely to go back to his tried-and-trusted team of the past few matches. Craig Gordon did nothing wrong against Slovakia, but hero-of-the-hour David Marshall should return between the sticks. Captain Andy Robertson is nursing a slight hamstring injury, but ought to make it at left-back. Declan Gallagher merits inclusion in central defence, as does Scott McTominay. Lyndon Dykes is free from suspension and while the luckless Oli McBurnie is clearly liked by Clarke, his return to the substitutes’ bench is on the cards. One wonders whether the enigmatic Leigh Griffiths, who looked so sprightly when off the bench against Slovakia, might be given a start. His ability to score out of very little could come in handy against the stuffy Israelis.
The manager’s message
Defeat in Trnava ended a nine-match run without a loss, but Clarke was immediately on the front foot with his players, telling them to look forward rather than pine for what came before.
"It wasn't so much looking back, it was more focused on Wednesday," defender Scott McKenna said of his Clarke’s post-match message. "We need to go to Israel and try to get three points to finish top of the group.
"Obviously it's the end of a winning run but it's now the chance to start another one. We know if we go there and get three points then we will win the group.
“Obviously you would far rather that than require results elsewhere. But the fact it's that black and white – three points and we qualify – makes it easier for us."
This road-trip across Europe came with the goal of unearthing two treasure troves: a spot at Euro 2020 and a better chance of making the World Cup in 2022. With one in the bag already, Scotland could keep everyone shimmying to sounds of Baccara all the way through winter with a positive outcome in Israel. Now really is the time for Scotland to stay on the dancefloor.