PREVIEW: Scotland v Belgium + Playoff Picture
Defeat to Russia on Friday night has left Scotland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2020 through the standard path hanging by a thread. The last thing Steve Clarke and the Tartan Army would like to see right now is the sight of Belgium’s galaxy of stars at Hampden but that is what they face on Monday night.
Where were we?
Scotland sit 4th, six points behind Russia with fifteen points to play for in the group. The safety net of the Nation’s League Playoffs is starting to look like Scotland’s likely route to the Euro 2020 Finals.
Read ahead for our preview of Scotland v Belgium and a look at the all-important Playoff Picture.
Record v Belgium Played 19, Won 4, Drawn 3, Lost 12
Scotland’s recent record against Belgium leaves a lot to be desired. Scotland are on a five-game losing run to the Red Devils, with an aggregate score of 13-0. Scotland’s last positive result came in qualifying for World Cup 2002 when Craig Brown’s side drew 2-2 at Hampden.
At the time the result was a disaster, Scotland losing a two-goal lead and conceding the equaliser in stoppage time, effectively curtailing our chances of qualifying for the Japan / South Korea World Cup.
The names are intimidating, the numbers even more so.
Belgium arrive at Hampden as the number 1 ranked side in the World according to FIFA’s ranking. This is no anomaly either, they have held a position in the top 5 since 2013.
Belgium arrive at Hampden on a 5-match unbeaten run, back to a wild 5-2 loss to Switzerland in last year’s Nations League. Going back two seasons to the start of the 2017-18 season, their record reads played 28, won 23, drawn 3, lost 2.
Scotland’s defeat to Russia on Friday night, combined with the calibre of opponent, our record against them and the tight turnaround point to a difficult night for the Tartan Army.
Therefore, the priority for this game must be to see the development of a style, strategy and selection that can be successful in March’s Nations League Playoffs. Both Head Coach & Captain spoke after the game on Friday about their confusion why Scotland dropped so deep after scoring. Issues like that and the general slackness in possession must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Predicted score – Scotland 1 - 3 Belgium
Predicted Scotland Lineup
It’s important Scotland start to develop a continuity of selection and strategy to build towards the Playoffs. With that in mind, don’t expect many changes from Friday’s selection.
Ryan Christie impressed from the bench, expect him to start (possibly at the expense of goal scorer McGinn) with a remit of getting closer to McBurnie than any midfielder managed on Friday night.
Elsewhere in Group I Russia v Kazakhstan San Marino v Cyprus
The Nation’s League Playoff Picture
Currently, it looks likely that Scotland will require the safety net of the Nation’s League Playoff to qualify for Euro 2020. Defeat to Belgium on Monday combined with a Russia win against Kazakhstan will effectively make that the only path available for the Scots.
It’s important then to look ahead at the developing Playoff Picture and how Scotland’s path to the Finals could look.
The Nation’s League – A Look Back
At the start of last season, Scotland competed in the inaugural UEFA Nation’s League competition. The Nation’s League divided all of Europe’s sides into leagues (A-D) based on ranking, then into groups (1-4).
Scotland were placed in League C, Group 1 alongside Israel and Albania. Despite a stumble away in Israel, Scotland won their group, sealing promotion to League B for the next edition of the competition. An excellent hat-trick from James Forrest at Hampden against Israel confirmed promotion. More importantly, by winning the group, a Playoff Place for Euro 2020 was secured against another League C group winner or similarly ranked team.
The Nation’s League Playoffs are scheduled to take place in March 2020, after the standard qualification process is completed. This is where things get slightly complicated.
Scotland will face a one-leg semi-final against another League C group winner before a one-leg Final against the winner of the other semi-final (also featuring League C group winners).
If any of the other League C group winners have already qualified for Euro 2020 through the standard process, then their place in the Playoffs will be taken by the next best-ranked team from League C that has not also already qualified.
The Playoff Picture – *UPDATED* as of Monday 9 September (in the morning)
In addition to Scotland, the other League C group winners were Finland, Norway & Serbia. Let’s check in on their progress through Euro 2020 Qualifying:
Finland – Six games into their qualifying group, Finland are in a strong position to qualify for the first major tournament in their history. They sit 2nd behind Italy on 12 points, five ahead of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Norwich City’s Teemu Pukki has led the team with 5 goals so far.
Last night's (Sunday) results saw Finland take a big step towards qualification. While Finland fell 2-1 to Italy (thanks to a Bobby Madden awarded penalty), Bosnia were losing 4-2 in Armenia.
Next up, Finland travel to Bosnia with a five point lead where anything other than a win for Bosnia would likely eliminate them and leave Finland with a clear path to Euro 2020.
As it stands, it looks unlikely that Finland will participate in the Nations League Playoff.
Norway – Similarly to Finland, last night's result has had a big impact on qualification. Norway could only draw in Sweden, keeping them two behind the Swedes who occupy the second automatic qualification spot behind Spain.
Next up, Norway host Spain while Sweden travel to Malta. After those matches Norway could find themselves five points behind Sweden with nine points to play for.
Therefore, it looks likely that Norway will participate in the Nations League Playoff.
Serbia – find themselves in a tight group with reigning European Champions Portugal. Ukraine lead the group on 13pts having played five games. Portugal sit 2nd on 5pts with two games in hand. Serbia sit joint 3rd with Luxembourg on 4pts having played one more game than Portugal and one fewer than Ukraine. Should Portugal win their game in hand they would be 4pts ahead with four games remaining. It is therefore likely that Serbia will compete in the Nation’s League Playoff.
Who would replace Finland?
As mentioned previously, should a Nation’s League Group Winner qualify through the standard process then their place in the Playoffs will be taken by the next best-ranked team based on the Nations League Rankings from League C that has not also already qualified.
The Nations League Rankings were used for seeding the Euro 2020 qualifying draw. League C looks like this:
Therefore, if Finland qualify, their place in the Playoffs will be taken by Bulgaria who currently sit bottom of their qualifying group with 0 wins, 2 draws and 3 losses so far. The Scotland camp will have watched Bulgaria’s 4-0 defeat at Wembley last night with interest. One final element that could muddy the picture, if a Playoff space is available in a higher league by virtue of those teams qualifying automatically, teams (not group winners) will 'waterfall' up the leagues to fill those places. In this situation, a random draw will decide which of Bulgaria or Israel moves up to a League B Playoff and which side plays Scotland.
Who Will Scotland Play and When?
Using the Nations League Rankings above, the best-ranked team will host the fourth-ranked team, and the second-ranked team will host the third-ranked team in one-leg Semi Finals. As it stands, that would look like this:
Scotland v Bulgaria / Israel (26 March 2020)
Norway v Serbia (26 March 2020)
The host of the Final would be determined in a draw on 22 November 2019, between the two hosts of the Semi-Final (Scotland or Norway). The Final would be held on 31 March 2020.
An evolving picture
That is the Playoff picture as it stands on the morning of Monday 9 September. There are of course more games tonight and tomorrow which could see the picture change again.
The Tartan Scarf should be your first port of call to stay up to date with the latest.