Serbia v Scotland: 'My heart says yes, my head says otherwise' - journalists predictions for huge clash
We’ve asked some our writers for their Serbia-Scotland predictions and which Scotland team they’d pick ...
Andrew Smith: It is invigorating that this football nation becomes swept along by possibility whenever the potential for new life on a barren major finals landscape opens up. It is a pity that this hope always requires to butt up against probability. And reality. Serbia have superior players to Scotland. The reality is that in one-off encounters when the stakes are so high – as is the case in Belgrade – the team boasting the more prodigious talent invariably prevails. Steve Clarke deserves enormous credit for making Scotland obdurate and competitive. Yet for all that his men are on an eight-game unbeaten run, had they lost four of their past five outings, the fact is that they could have had no real quibble. Scotland’s best hope is suffocating the Serbs into submission. As a consequence, Clarke’s back three will be pivotal. It won’t happen, but he should be prepared to pick the best individuals for those positions – regardless of whether they are left or right-footed – not the players who acquitted themselves so well last month. Scotland are not in Hampden any more. My XI (3-5-1-1): Marshall; Cooper, McKenna, Tierney; O’Donnell, McGregor, Jack, McGinn, Robertson; Armstrong; Dykes.
Alan Pattullo: So here we are. At the moment of truth. Steve Clarke will be feeling satisfied with how preparations have gone. Just two players have withdrawn due to injury from an initial squad of 27. He has options. He has players, specifically Stuart Armstrong, who are in form, in the Southampton midfielder’s case for a team riding high in the English top flight. Confidence has to be high among all the players, with Scotland now unbeaten in eight games. Even those not enjoying such a successful time of it at their clubs – David Marshall, Callum McGregor, Ryan Christie – will get a fillip from being in an environment where spirits are high. One downside is the lack of speed and craft out wide due the absence of James Forrest and Ryan Fraser. Scotland do not often go nine games unbeaten and they will need to do this to progress to next summer’s finals, and it could well be a case of penalties once more. I feel this will be a long-awaited glory night for Scotland. However, it will be hard-earned – and tense. My team: Marshall; McTominay, Gallagher, Cooper; O’Donnell, McGregor, Jack, McGinn, Armstrong, Robertson; Dykes.
Matthew Elder: Had this match taken place six months ago I would have approached it with zero expectation. However, as Scotland always tend to do, they have offered just enough glimmer of hope with their solid, if unspectacular, performances in the last round of fixtures to ensure that defeat on Thursday will be all the more crushing. The clean sheets against Israel, Slovakia and Czech Republic show that, defensively at least, Steve Clarke has his team in good shape going to Serbia – albeit this is a level up from the aforementioned sides. However, I fear the injury to Ryan Fraser may have robbed Scotland of their most important attacking weapon for a match of this nature – pace on the counter. I'm fairly confident Scotland will not crumble on the night, but I fear another chapter in the book of glorious failure. My line-up: (5-3-1-1) Marshall; O'Donnell, McTominay, McKenna, Tierney, Robertson; Armstrong, Jack, McGinn; Christie; Dykes.
Mark Atkinson: Scotland have timed their run of form perfectly and are in good nick coming into this match against Serbia. Steve Clarke deserves immense credit for the way he's put his stamp on his team in curating a stoic, well-organised back-line with some threat in attack. In normal times, a trip to Serbia would feel extremely daunting given the partisan nature of the hosts' fans, but with that hostility wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, Scotland have a puncher's chance in Belgrade. I don't think it will be a pretty contest and I half-expect it to go to extra-time. My worry is that Serbia have the armoury in Dusan Tadic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Aleksandar Mitrovic to score, and therefore Scotland's functional yet limited attack will need to do the same. I hope I'm wrong, but I fear Serbia might just be one step too far. My line-up (3-5-1-1): Marshall; McTominay, McKenna, Cooper; O'Donnell, Armstrong, Jack, McGinn, Robertson; Christie; Dykes.
Moira Gordon: Going into this do-or-die match on the back of a nine-game unbeaten run should give Steve Clarke and his men the belief they need to stand up to the Serbian threat. The return of Ryan Christie, Kieran Tierney and Stuart Armstrong to the ranks is also welcome. Serbia are no slouches, though, and even with a couple of useful players sidelined due to the pandemic, they have quality, technique and tenacity in abundance. The fact they dispatched Norway in the previous round underlines that. It means that defensively, Scotland will find themselves pushed deep at times and concentration is going to be vital. It is likely to be a hard shift for Andy Roberston and Liam Palmer, with both needing to help plug the rearguard, while also getting up to offer quality supply to the Scotland attack. Ryan Fraser is a loss for Scotland but the return of Christie, who is likely to be the one offering Lyndon Dykes’ support, is a positive, as is the presence of Leigh Griffiths, who is likely to be asked to make an impact from the bench. The margin for error within this match is extremely slim but while the head warns that Serbia may just have too much for Clarke’s men, the heart, as always, is holding out for a Scotland win and the long-awaited return to a major finals. It can be done. I’d go (3-5-1-1): Marshall; McTominay, Gallagher, Tierney; Palmer, McGinn, Jack, McGregor, Robertson; Christie; Dykes.
David Oliver: There’s a lot to be said for momentum and while Scotland have had plenty of solid results to propel them to this stage, the same can’t be said for Serbia. However while we're all feeling Steve Clarke’s side is flying, there is enough creative spark and firepower in the opposition to kick-start the home side at just the right time. Aleksandar Mitrovic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luka Jovic are a formidable enough trio without the question mark over Dusan Tadic, but Scotland aren't exactly bereft of attackers either with the return of Leigh Griffiths a talisman to bolster an already potent trio of Lyndon Dykes, Ryan Christie and John McGinn. There should be goals for either side given the opposing defences and though Scotland are on a streak, I fear our form may well be shown up as temporary if the permanent class of Serbia's forward-line shines through and delivers Declan Gallagher's first international defeat in six games. Scotland: (3-5-2): Marshall; Cooper, Gallagher, Tierney; Palmer, McTominay, Jack, McGinn, Robertson; Christie, Dykes.
Barry Anderson: My heart says Scotland can do it. My head is telling me otherwise. Eight games without defeat is a terrific record but, by the law of averages, it suggests a loss is due. Belgrade is notoriously difficult although the absence of fans certainly helps Steve Clarke and the players this time. Ryan Fraser's pace on the counter-attack would have been a vital part of the gameplan so the timing of his injury is awful. Clarke will stick with the back three and defensive solidity will be vital to Scotland's chances. There are questions about whether Declan Gallagher and Andy Considine will start but I reckon it would be unfair to leave them out after their performances last month. Scotland haven't conceded a goal in their last three games. I'm certain Serbia will stop it becoming four. Aleksandar Kolarov's free-kicks are vicious and Dusan Tadic's intelligent movement will cause problems. I think Segej Milinkovic-Savic is the biggest danger to Scotland. His attacking midfield runs and ability to score goals need to be curtailed. He came off the bench to score both Serbia's goals in their 2-1 win in Norway to reach this play-off final. I just hope my heart is right and my head wrong. Team would be (3-5-1-1): Marshall; McTominay, Gallagher, Considine; Tierney, McGinn, Jack, McGregor, Robertson; Christie; Dykes.