It's all about Thursday night for Scotland - a result that could define a generation
Another date with destiny. Another appointment with, well, what? Elation? Misery? There’s been too little of the former, too much of the latter with Scotland.
Everything and anything seems possible at the start of a potentially momentous week for Steve Clarke and the Scotland international team.
It could be one of the best weeks for a long time, it could be one of the worst. Exactly three years on from another game of similar significance, against Slovenia under Gordon Strachan, Scotland will likely put the nation through the wringer again against Israel in Thursday’s Euro 2020 play-off semi-final. In Ljubljana that October evening in 2017 they plucked a draw from the jaws of victory, slipped to third in the group and failed to gain a play-off place on goal difference. Very Scotland.
Of course, it’s the Scottish way to view things from a glass half-full perspective. Except Hampden, sadly, won’t even be half-full. It will be empty. Imagine the bleakness in already difficult times if Scotland are obliged to slouch off the pitch on Thursday night following defeat to Israel at a deserted national stadium and knowing Clarke’s side have to come back and do it all again, twice, in the following days.
In that scenario, maybe it’s just as well fans are still forbidden to attend. Otherwise, we might be in the realm of lowest ever attendance figures, with Nations League fixtures against Slovakia and Czech Republic completing an unprecedented seven-day spell where Scotland play three home matches in succession.
Alternatively, of course, this pair of matches could take place in the knowledge Scotland are a step away from a major finals. They might be buoyant, celebratory affairs, the feel-good vibes from a hundred thousand living rooms and more helping light up the deserted slopes of Hampden.
A new hero might have emerged. Motherwell defender Declan Gallagher, speaking yesterday, recalled watching Kenny Miller dash in between two Italian defenders to head in the opener against Italy in a 1-1 draw in 2005. He recalled James McFadden’s famous winner in Parc des Princes 13 years ago last month.
“I remember how I felt watching those games and seeing those goals go in,” he said."We know how hard it is for the fans not being there. It's also hard on ourselves but we are professionals and we have to deal with that. Hopefully we can bring a wee bit of pride and joy to Scotland as a whole."
Perhaps Lyndon Dykes, or maybe Ryan Fraser, the exciting winger who has returned to the squad following a move to Newcastle United, will be the match winner. Possibly John McGinn will carry on where he and his Aston Villa teammates left off against Liverpool on Sunday, when he contributed one of his side’s seven goals. Equally, hopefully Andy Robertson, in the opposition at Villa Park, and Scott McTominay, a half-time substitute for Manchester United against Spurs, can shake the disappointment of being on the end of two historic defeats from their shoulders.
The chance Scotland secured going on for two years ago has finally hoved into view. The players have gathered, from Motherwell and Kilmarnock, from Manchester United and Liverpool, in the knowledge the next game really is The Big One.
The team has played a dozen games since the 3-2 win over Israel that secured a play-off semi-final against…..Israel. A manager has gone, another has arrived. The baton, the enormous responsibility, has passed from Alex McLeish to Clarke, who has been understandably reluctant to talk about this particular fixture.
He was able to use the one-game-at-a-time mantra so favoured by managers and players alike. Now it truly is the next game. It’s been put off again – and again. But it’s here. There is no escaping it.
Of course, the notion Clarke and his backroom staff had placed this clash, from which so much else could flow, to one side is baloney of the highest order. Why else were they urgently seeking to implement a new three-at-the-back formation in the games against Israel and Czech Republic last month?
The mask slipped slightly when assistant coach Steven Reid admitted it’s all they have been thinking about since November, when the players filed away after a 3-1 win over Kazakhstan. Of course, back then, pre-Covid 19, this play-off semi-final was supposed to be the next game. Momentum was with Scotland. It still is, to an extent. While rarely pretty, Clarke’s side preserved their unbeaten record stretching back to the 6-0 win over San Marino a year ago next week with a draw against Israel and a win against a Czech Republic team assembled from willing domestic top-flight pros.
“The focus has purely been on the Israel game – it has been since last November,” said Reid. “We’re fully prepared and I don’t think we can really take too much from the previous game. It’s a game we’re really looking forward to and it’s only about this game. We’ve done bits of preparation around Slovakia and Czech Republic but the main focus is this game. Once this is done, we’ll move on to another two massive games.”
The truth is, these other assignments won’t seem to matter much unless Scotland do what’s required on Thursday night. That’s win, be it through a handsome victory in 90 minutes, a sneaky one after 120 minutes – or even, god forbid, but we’ll take it, we’ll take it - by doing so via penalties.
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