As 2020 finally ended, 2021 loomed into view – the biggest year for the Scotland Men’s national Team this century.
While the excitement for Scotland’s return to a Major Finals in June is limitless, our journey to the next World Cup in Qatar will begin in March. That must be the sole focus of our attention for now.
After December’s draw, we know which teams stand between Scotland and a place at World Cup 2022 – Denmark, Austria, Israel, Faroe Islands & Moldova – and the order we’ll take them on. Armed with that information, we’ve taken time to reflect on the scale of the challenge ahead.
Let’s try and plot a course from here to Qatar.
The odds are stacked against us
The first thing to understand is, it is far more difficult to qualify for a World Cup than a European Championship. 24 teams qualified for Euro 2020 from 55 UEFA Member Nations (44%).
By comparison, only 13 nations will qualify for World Cup 2022 from Europe (24%).
Before a ball is kicked, our chances of qualifying for WC22 are halved compared to Euro 2020.
Stage One – Where are we aiming?
Before we dig into the fixtures, we need to understand what our objective from this group is.
While I’ve seen a lot of talk online around how best to finish 2nd in the group and take the Playoff place, it is my firm belief that our best chance of qualifying for World Cup 2022 is by winning this group. This sounds ambitious, let me explain.
If Scotland finish 2nd in the group, we will enter the Playoffs in March 2022. They’re constituted the same way the Euro 2020 Playoffs were supposed to work:
We would be drawn into a Playoff Path with three other teams. We would play a one-leg Playoff Semi Final (hosted by the better ranked runner-up) then four days later both Semi Final winners would compete a one-leg Playoff Final (with the host drawn at random when the Playoff Path was decided).
Remember how emotionally drained we felt after the penalty shoot-out win over Israel? Imagine having four days to prepare (and potentially travel) to a Playoff Final – not a month.
Consider the teams that will likely be in the Playoffs. Casting your eye across the groups throws up teams like Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, Wales, Turkey, Norway, Slovakia, Russia, Poland, Romania or Iceland.
This group would be joined by two Nations League Group Winners who finish outside the top 2 in World Cup Qualifying. As a reminder, the Nations League Group Winners from Leagues A & B were - France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Wales, Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary. It’s very likely the Playoff Place would come down to two of the League B winners (Wales or Austria in pole position there) – had Scotland won against Slovakia or Israel to close the group that would have been us. We have to hope we don’t live to rue that missed opportunity.
Going into the Playoffs would mean winning two high profile games against serious opponents inside a week.
Compare that to the challenge of finishing ahead of Denmark, Austria and Israel over 10 games played across a calendar year and maybe you’re coming round to my way of thinking that winning this group represents our best chance of qualifying?
How to reach Top Two?
Whether we’re aiming for the Playoff or to win the group, reaching the top two positions is essential.
Below I’ve collected the runner up points tally in every European 6-team qualifying group since 2000.
In almost every qualifying cycle, there is at least one team that finishes 2nd in their group on 16 to 18 points. However, there are also teams who require 23 to 25 points to finish second.
On average, 21 points is enough for second so we can use that as a benchmark.
Let’s not underestimate how much of a challenge, historically speaking, Scotland have had winning 21+ points in a qualifying campaign.
In a 6-team group it’s not something we’ve achieved since the campaign to reach the 1998 World Cup returned 24 points – seven wins, two draws and one solitary loss. Ironically, that was our last successful World Cup qualifying campaign.
Scotland did collect 24 points in qualifying for Euro 2008 although that was in a seven-team group. Take away the six points from the bottom seed Faroe Islands and we scored 18 points.
So, what are the keys to this group?
Let’s remind ourselves of Scotland's fixtures.
Quick out the Blocks
The fixture computer has handed Scotland an absolutely crucial game first up – welcoming second seed Austria to Hampden. Scotland’s record in opening qualifiers is poor. Since ’98, our record reads 3 wins, 5 draws and 3 losses. All those early dropped points have seen us forced into improbable scenarios requiring multiple wins to close out groups.
While a win against Austria on the opening day would be critical, it would mean nothing if Scotland don’t follow up with a win in Israel on matchday 2. Scotland’s recent record against Israel does pose concern, although if we’re to be considered as potential group winners then wins in places like Israel are a must.
We close the March fixtures welcoming the Faroe Islands to Hampden which has to be three points. At the same time, Austria welcome Denmark in what will be a fascinating insight into the power struggle at the top of the group. After coming to Hampden, Austria host the Faroes.
Should Austria get off to a slow start, dropping points in two of their opening games and facing four away games in five across September and October – the next talking point might come into play…
Austria’s Golden Ticket
As mentioned earlier, as a Nations League Group Winner, it is highly likely that Austria will receive a Playoff Place if they fall outside the top 2 in World Cup Qualifying.
If they do finish second, the Nations League Playoff Place will go elsewhere (not to us, unfortunately).
You have to wonder, with that knowledge, could that affect their intensity? If Austria drop points in March and are facing an uphill climb to win the group – all of a sudden, the difference between finishing second or third in the group is negligible.
As a Scotland supporter, watching the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign knowing we had the Playoff Place in the bag through the Nations League, I didn’t feel the same level of intensity or stress about each match.
This may be wishful thinking, but if Austria start slowly it’s something to look out for.
Denmark v Austria v Scotland Mini-League
In many qualifying groups, the gap between a top seed and second / third is large. With Belgium, France or Germany as a top seed, the winner of the group would be effectively pre-determined with the rest left to fight over second. Three times this century Scotland have had the debatable honour of being drawn against the newly minted World Cup Winners (Italy, Spain & Germany in consecutive Euro Qualifiers).
This group is different. While Denmark are top seed in the group, this is the first time this century they have reached this high. Typically, they have come from the second pot of seeds. Since 2018, Denmark have won 9 competitive games while drawing with Ireland (x4), Switzerland, Georgia and England. They have lost twice to Belgium in that period.
Austria’s competitive record since 2018 is better, recording 12 wins, 3 draws (against Bosnia, Poland, Norway) and 5 losses (v Bosnia, Poland, Israel, Latvia, Romania).
Neither team is immune to dropping points to lower ranked sides. This will make the mini-league of matches between the three absolutely critical. In a group of tight margins, losing a head-to-head will be catastrophic while draws might be beneficial come the end of the group.
We mentioned earlier about Israel’s recent record against Scotland. Since 2018, they have proven they can take points from almost anyone.
Since 2018 in competitive games, Israel have 7 wins (Scotland x2, Albania, Austria, Latvia x2, Slovakia), 4 draws (Slovenia, Macedonia, Scotland, Slovakia) and 10 losses (Albania, Scotland x2, Poland x2, Slovenia, Austria, Macedonia, Czech Republic x2).
The team that avoids dropping points to Israel will likely have the best chance of qualifying from this group.
Bottom Seeds Must = 12pts
We’ve written at length in the past about Scotland’s qualifying record vs the bottom two seeds in qualifying groups. Only once since 1998 have Scotland taken maximum points from those four matches.
Should Scotland have aspirations of qualifying for the World Cup in Qatar, 12 points simply must be returned from home and away games against the Faroe Islands and Moldova.
Many will want to dredge up poor results of the past against those two. I’d love to believe they came during the ‘Glorious Failure’ era. That era is over.
New Year, New Scotland.