Scotland must and can improve


Scotland have endured a dismal international break that has left their Euro 2020 qualification hopes hanging by a thread, but all hope should not be lost.

Steve Clarke’s side went into the home matches with Russia and Belgium knowing they realistically had to win at least one of those games to keep their hopes of a top-two finish in Group I and an automatic place at next summer’s finals alive.

However, what unfolded was nothing short of disastrous for the Scots. After taking an early lead against Russia, they appeared to be paralysed by fear and were fortunate to only lose 2-1 in the end against the World Cup quarter-finalists.

Scotland did produce an improved display against Belgium on Monday night, but the gulf in quality between the two teams was clear for everyone to see as the world’s highest-ranked side eventually cruised to a 4-0 win without ever really getting out of first gear.

Barring a mathematical miracle, Scotland are now out of the race for automatic qualification, but they do have the safety net of a play-off place already assured courtesy of their performances during last season’s UEFA Nations League.

However, on current form, it is difficult to see Scotland winning a play-off and that would mean their wait to qualify for a first major international tournament since 1998 would go on.

There certainly appears to be plenty of doom and gloom surrounding Scotland at the moment, but there is the nucleus of a good team within the squad, with a number of players featuring regularly in the Premier League or playing in Europe for the likes of Celtic.

First and foremost Clarke has to find a way of getting his best players on to the pitch.

Bizarrely, the former Kilmarnock boss left the likes of Ryan Fraser, James Forrest and John McGinn out of his starting line-up against Belgium and, although none of them pulled up any trees against Russia, they have to be considered an integral part of the cause going forward.

Clarke also went without an out-and-out striker against Belgium, opting to go with Matt Phillips up front, a strange call considering we are more used to seeing the West Brom man play as a right wing-back than we are as a centre-forward.

Scotland are not blessed with a plethora of attacking options although surely £20million striker Oliver McBurnie would have been a better option to lead the line.

Celtic forward Leigh Griffiths should return to the squad soon, provided he can stay fit, and his impending comeback will also boost Scotland’s attacking options.

Defence is perhaps less of an easy fix, with Stephen O’Donnell and Liam Cooper looking out of their depth against Russia and Belgium, while Charlie Mulgrew’s best days are perhaps behind him.

There aren’t any obvious candidates coming through to fill the void at the back, so Scotland may have to persevere with what they’ve got for the time being, but that would perhaps be even more reason to suggest that attack would be the best form of defence.

Being braver both on and off the ball is certainly going to be key for Scotland over the coming months and, if they can find a system that suits their best players, they can still qualify for Euro 2020.

The key will be to build confidence during their final four qualifiers as that would give them the platform they need going into the all-important play-offs early next year.