PREVIEW: Israel Playoff Semi-Final
Scotland v Israel Thursday 8 October Kick Off 19:45 Rules: Single-leg knockout. If tied after 90 minutes, 30 minutes of extra time follows before a penalty shootout.
This Is It
Ten matches into his Scotland reign we reach the game Steve Clarke’s time as Scotland Head Coach (and arguably his managerial career) has been building towards.
When Clarke was unveiled as Scotland manager, Scotland’s Euro 2020 qualifying campaign was only two games old. However, the horror defeat in Astana on the opening day meant the escape hatch of the Playoff secured by his predecessor Alex McLeish would likely be required.
Four defeats from Clarke’s first five games, admittedly coming in home and away games with the ruthless Belgians and powerful Russians as he started to work with the group made the Playoffs a necessity for Scotland.
Since then, Scotland rounded out Euro 2020 qualifying with three wins before opening the Nations League campaign last month with a draw against Israel and a win in the Czech Republic.
Five games unbeaten should be cause for optimism, although the circumstances surrounding the drab draw against Israel and win over the Czech’s patchwork B-team have raised concerns.
Steve Clarke and his squad face one of the biggest nights of their Scotland careers on Thursday.
Can they meet the moment? Let’s preview Scotland’s most consequential match since 2003.
A Larger, Fitter Squad
Ahead of Scotland’s Nations League opener last month, only the SPFL based players had kicked a competitive ball in the 2020/21 season. The English season hadn’t begun, leaving our large contingent of English Premier League players woefully short of match sharpness.
That isn’t a concern this time. Of the 26 players in the squad, only Callum Paterson has yet to taste competitive action this season. Steve Clarke has called up a larger squad to cope with the rigours of an international triple header. After the Israel Playoff, Slovakia and the Czech Republic visit Hampden on Nations League business.
Of those English based players, several are bringing impressive form back to Scotland. Lyndon Dykes has netted twice for his new club Queens Park Rangers, Ryan Fraser has opened his scoring account for Newcastle United, Oliver Burke has been starting up front for Sheffield United and Stuart Armstrong has been impressive for Southampton.
Importantly, John McGinn appears to be back to his best for Aston Villa, contributing three assists and a goal in three EPL appearances, including a goal and assist in the staggering 7-2 demolition of Liverpool this past weekend. Hopefully Andy Robertson doesn’t hold it against him!
Full analysis of the Scotland squad can be found here.
This squad should provide Clarke with more options going forward. Oli McBurnie and Lawrence Shankland return to the squad having missed the last games with injury while Callum Paterson returns to the squad for the first time under Steve Clarke.
Elsewhere, Ryan’s Fraser & Porteous join the squad while James Forrest is one of few significant absentees with injury. One thing to keep an eye on is pre-match fitness reports on Scott McKenna and Liam Palmer. McKenna sat in the stands for Nottingham Forest’s game at the weekend while Palmer was withdrawn at half time.
Israel – FIFA Rank 93rd – Form 1W, 2D, 3L Israel are becoming familiar foes; this will be our fourth meeting in the last two years. Israel proved themselves to be tricky opponents in September, playing effectively on the counter attack and creating a very impressive goal for PSV’s Eran Zahavi in our 1-1 Nations League opener.
Zahavi is part of the travelling party for the Playoff, who, along with Hoffenheim’s Mu'nas Dabbur will need to be marshalled closely.
The rest of the squad is much the same as September’s group, analysis of that squad and key danger men can be found here.
Record v Israel
Played 6, Won 4, Drawn 1, Lost 1
The draw at Hampden last month will have pushed the Tartan Army’s anxiety levels through the roof. Steve Clarke confounded all expectations (and his selections to date) by starting with a 3-4-3 using Andy Robertson and James Forrest as wing backs, Kieran Tierney left sided centre back and Scott McTominay in the back three.
What resulted was a fairly dis-jointed performance where Scotland were caught by long balls into the channels, particularly behind James Forrest.
Predicting a Scotland line-up is incredibly difficult at the best of times, let alone when Steve Clarke upends his tactics book and implements something brand new!
Forrest’s absence and Fraser’s lack of match fitness leaves the squad relatively light on natural wingers. Therefore, we could assume that Clarke will persist with the three at the back system he implemented in Scotland’s last two games against Israel and the Czechs.
In goal Marshall is number one. In defence, much will depend on Clarke’s faith in McTominay as a centre back and the fitness of McKenna and Palmer. Up front, Lyndon Dykes has surely shown enough to retain the number 9 shirt. Midfield is anyone’s guess!
The most important thing for Scotland is that players get close to the central striker to link up with him, chase flick-ons etc.
McGinn is now playing for Aston Villa in tandem with Grealish and Barkley supporting Ollie Watkins. It’s essential he finds pockets of space outside the box to create shooting chances and makes the late darting runs into the box that saw him score so regularly last season for Scotland.
Elsewhere, Armstrong could provide a perfect link-up man to bring the best out of
Andy Robertson on the left.
Since 1998, Scotland have come within a game or two of qualification many times, only to stumble when the pressure is high. This game won’t be easy, but it represents the best chance we’ve had to come within one game of ending 22 years in the international wilderness.
Our home advantage and a sell-out crowd has been cruelly taken from us, but we must believe. We have a great manager and a squad of players playing at the highest levels of club football.
We can do this!
Predicted Score – Scotland 1 -0 Israel
Elsewhere in Euro 2020 Playoffs
Norway v Serbia in Oslo to decide the other Playoff Finalist. Should Scotland progress, we’ll travel to the winner of this match on 12 November.