Scotland must beware any whizz-bangs left over from Fireworks Night when they complete their Euro 2020 group stage qualifying campaign against Kazakhstan at Hampden Park next month. If the Scots’ nerves are once more fragile on November 19, a stray jumping jack is liable to have them running for cover to the dressing room like St Trinian’s girls hitching up their skirts and squealing at the glimpse of a mouse.
Steve Clarke has repeatedly spoken of the positives he has identified whenever his squad gathers for training, yet is patently confounded by the loss of resolve under pressure, witnessed in their three appearances this season. Against Russia at Hampden Park last month, Scotland led through John McGinn’s first international goal but inexplicably began to play too deep and conceded the equaliser to Artem Dzubya before the break, on the way to a 2-1 defeat.
Three days later, the 4-0 rout inflicted by Belgium at Hampden began with the breakdown of a Scottish free kick on the edge of the Belgian penalty area, speedily converted into a counter-punch inflicted by Romelu Lukaku. Clarke rued the ease with which his players were picked off despite having close to 50% of possession. That, at least, could be discounted somewhat as the consequence of playing the world’s best team.
No such consolation applied to the latest drubbing, administered by Russia – two places behind Scotland at No. 46 in the Fifa rankings – in the Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday. A respectable first half performance was delivered by grace of the Russians playing at half-speed, an approach discarded at half-time when Stanislav Cherchesov ordered his men to stop doodling in midfield and go straight for the Scots’ back line.
The defence duly crumpled under the menace of Dzubya, whose two goals were supplemented by strikes from Magomed Ozgoev and Aleksandr Golovin.
“The players seemed to lose heart very quickly, which is unfortunate because we had done OK up to that point,” Clarke lamented afterwards, and added that his players now had to “make sure this is the very, very bottom of the lowest.”
The manager must pray that his importuning takes effect soon. Clarke targeted four points from six in the home games against Russia and Belgium and, when he announced his squad for the two Hampden fixtures, said: “The next three games are going to be crucial.
“We’re going to be well prepared and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got to get the points we need to stay in contention for the final three games.”
Instead, the Scots took nothing from the schedule and now have to quarry some degree of respectability from the remaining fixtures, at home to San Marino on Saturday, followed by next month’s trip to Cyprus and the visit of Kazakhstan, whose 3-0 victory in Astana in March rates as one of Scotland’s worst results.
What makes the Scots’ plight even more pitiful is that a glance at the Euro 2020 group tables shows that comparably small nations – Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Slovakia and Sweden – all remain in contention to qualify.
Their challenges add fuel to the perennial debate about Scotland’s failure – the men’s senior team, that is – to qualify for the finals of a major tournament since 1998. More immediately, however, Clarke must carry out considerable remedial work before the Nations League play-offs in the spring, which offer a back-door entry to the Euro 2020 finals.
The play-offs were achieved when Alex McLeish changed his defensive formation to a back three, designed to accommodate Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney in the same line-up. Clarke, however, has reverted to four at the back in his five-match tenure, none of which has yielded a clean sheet.
That will surely be accomplished against a San Marino side, bottom of the Fifa rankings and without a goal in over two years.
If Clarke can also prevent Cyprus and Kazakhstan from finding the net, a modicum of respectability will be restored, but he must also bolster the confidence of his attackers, a task highlighted in Moscow by Dzyuba’s two goals, which took his tally for Russia to 23 – one short of the total mustered by the entire Scotland squad.