As the nights close in the lights will go out on Scotland’s Euro 2020 Qualifying campaign this week.
The Tartan Army have an opportunity for some late season sun in Nicosia before facing the ghosts of Astana as Kazakhstan visit Hampden on Tuesday to remind Scotland fans of one of the most chastening results in our history, the horrendous 3-0 loss in March in Alex McLeish’s second last game in charge.
The only carrot on offer is the possibility of finishing third in the group, exactly where we were seeded coming in.
Well, that’s the intro I would have been writing were it not for the little bit of bureaucratic brilliance from UEFA known as the Nations League. Back at the start of the 2018/19 season, under Alex McLeish’s stewardship, Scotland won a group featuring Israel and Albania, guaranteeing a Playoff place in March 2020 (should be it required). This safety-net will be gratefully grabbed by the Tartan Army now.
In this reality, Scotland approach these two winnable matches off the back of a morale boosting 6-0 hammering of San Marino with the chance to build the momentum to see us to March and (hopefully) two defining Playoff games to secure major tournament qualification for the first time in 22 years.
In addition to that, the visit of the Kazakhs offers the chance to lay the ghosts of Astana to rest. In a sign of the changes Steve Clarke has brought to the side through choice or enforced absenteeism, only five of the Astana starting 11 will likely start this week (Palmer, McKenna, McGinn, McGregor & Forrest).
With this more positive outlook, let’s look ahead.
Where were we?
Scotland sit 4th in the group, knowing that wins against Cyprus and Kazakhstan to close out the group would see us finish 3rd (ironically in a Playoff place under the process for the last European Championship). Belgium & Russia have long since disappeared over the horizon and secured their places at Euro 2020.
Record v Cyprus Played 6, Won 6, Drawn 0, Lost 0 – Win % - 100%
Given Cyrprus’ average FIFA ranking of 87th (they’re currently 93rd), Scotland’s record against the Cypriots is very good.
Steve Clarke’s opening game of his reign was at home against Cyprus where Andy Robertson and a very late winner from Oli Burke delivered the 3pts in a 2-1 win.
Before that our last encounter came in 2011 where Kenny Miller scored one of the most remarkable goals of his Scotland career in another 2-1 win. He killed Christophe Berra's long ball with one touch before sending a half-volley arrowing into the top corner from outside the box (Jamie Mackie scored a pretty tasty second).
The Scotland Squad
You can read our analysis of the squad selected by Steve Clarke here.
Since the announcement, the deck has been shuffled due to injuries. Several sure starters including captain Andy Robertson, Liam Cooper, Scott McTominay & Ryan Fraser dropped out of the squad.
Lewis Morgan, Graeme Shinnie & Hibs’ Ryan Porteous have since been called into the squad.
The Opponents Since Cyprus went down 2-1 at Hampden in Steve Clarke’s opening game, they lost 1-0 in Russia before a three-game unbeaten streak – 1-1 at home to Kazakhstan, a 4-0 away win in San Marino before a 2-1 win in Kazakhstan. They welcome Scotland to Nicosia on the back of a 5-0 loss at home to Russia.
Only five of Cyprus’ current squad play beyond their borders, with centre back Konstantinos Laifis being the standout, playing for Standard Liege in Belgium.
Centre forward Pieros Sotiriou (FC Copenhagen) will be the danger man for Scotland’s defence to watch. He has 8 goals in 33 caps.
Despite the key players missing from the squad it’s essential that Scotland take the momentum from the win against San Marino into these final two qualifiers.
It is essential that Scotland go out and assert themselves, play positively and score some goals. The home game against Cyprus wasn’t nearly as dominant as Steve Clarke would have liked. A win to nil would be a confidence boost for the entire squad.
Predicted score – Cyprus 0-2 Scotland (Christie, Shankland) Predicted Scotland Lineup
We'd expect to see Shankland continue up front after starting and scoring against San Marino. Hints have been dropped in the media regarding Scott McKenna and Mikey Devlin replicating their centre back partnership from Aberdeen at international level.
Elsewhere in Group I
Russia v Belgium - If the Belgians avoid defeat they'll win the group.
San Marino v Kazakhstan - San Marino are already consigned to bottom of the group.
Results to Watch with Playoff Implications
Friday 15 November
Finland v Liechtenstein – a win for Finland would see them qualify for Euro 2020 and out of the Playoff Semi-Final v Scotland.
Romania v Sweden – a win for Sweden would ensure Romania can’t qualify automatically and remain a potential opponent for Scotland in the Playoff Semi-Final.
Elsewhere Bulgaria have no chance of automatic qualification so remain a potential Semi-Final opponent. Israel play Poland on Saturday where a loss would end their chances of automatic qualification.