Scotland will take to the Hampden pitch on Friday night to kick off their Nations League B campaign in surreal circumstances.
Most obviously, the game will be played behind closed doors owing to the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic, meaning this writer will miss his first competitive Scotland home game in 11 years. Many will see longer runs than that scuppered.
The sight that will greet the players as they emerge for kick-off
The second surreal circumstance is in the opponents Israel, who will become a familiar foe in coming months.
If you cast your mind back to 2018, Alex McLeish led Scotland to victory in our inaugural Nations League B group over Albania and Israel. That victory sealed promotion to League B (which starts this week) and a Euro 2020 Playoff Semi-Final should we need it.
A re-structure of the Nations League for 2020 saw Leagues A and B expanded to 16 teams (from 12). This re-shuffle prevented teams being relegated from the top two leagues and saw more teams promoted. Hence, Israel were able to follow us up to League B and fate paired us again!
This game will also serve as a dress rehearsal for the Euro 2020 Playoff Semi-Final in October, postponed from March, which saw us drawn against (you guessed it) Israel! Win that and we’ll travel to either Serbia or Norway in November for the chance to end 23 years in the international wilderness.
Now we’re all up to speed, here are the key talking points for Scotland’s first match in more than 9 months!
Record v Israel Played 5, Won 4, Drawn 0, Lost 1
Our only loss to Israel came in the last Nations League campaign when a Kieran Tierney own goal (interestingly his last appearance for Scotland) saw the Scots fall to a 2-1 defeat after John Souttar had been sent off.
The last match against Israel came in the return match, a James Forrest hat-trick sealing a 3-2 win.
As ever, the Scotland squad announcement has caused debate and discussion. Steve Clarke was placed in a difficult position picking this squad, with so many players based down south in early pre-season, so seriously low on match sharpness. Our article on the squad as announced is here.
Headline news from the squad announcement was QPR’s new signing Lyndon Dykes choosing to represent Scotland, the country of his parents over Australia, the country of his birth. Dykes will be looking to make his debut on Friday.
Social media was also abuzz when Oli McBurnie withdrew from the squad before appearing off the bench for Sheffield United the next day. This statement provided to The Tartan Scarf from Scotland Head Coach Steve Clarke gave clarification on the decision-making process:
Scotland Head Coach Steve Clarke “I spoke to Chris Wilder at the end of last week and he told me Oli hadn’t been training because he had a laceration in his foot that had become infected and that he wouldn’t be fit enough to play at international level. Chris is one of the most honest men in football and we had a good discussion about where Oli was at. People have to remember there’s a world of difference between getting some minutes in a pre-season friendly and preparing for an international double header. After discussions with the medical team and sports science team it made sense for everyone for Oli to stay at Sheffield and work on his fitness.”
Oli has since made a statement of his own explaining his disappointment at having to withdraw from the squad.
As mentioned previously, we’re going to get very well acquainted with the Israelis over the next couple of months, with three matches scheduled. We will have a full report on the their squad shortly.
Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding the preparation for this game, Steve Clarke and his team have to treat this as a full dress-rehearsal for the Playoff Semi-Final in October.
A win (ideally a comfortable one), would be a huge boost to the confidence of the team and the Tartan Army building up to one of the biggest games in our recent history.
Predicted Score – Scotland 2-0 Israel
Predicting a line-up is incredibly difficult. All over the pitch there are decisions for Clarke to make between his ‘preferred’ starting 11 and players who are more match sharp. David Marshall is nominally number 1 but hasn’t played a game this season, while Jon McLaughlin hasn’t conceded a league goal for Rangers yet.
Clarke hasn’t had the opportunity to pick between Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney. Tierney’s form at Arsenal post-restart surely makes him a guaranteed pick, but where?
Elsewhere in Nations League B Group 2
Slovakia v Czech Republic in Bratislava.
The Czech camp has been rocked by the withdrawal of a member of the backroom staff testing positive for Covid-19. Media reports state that two players (midfielder Tomáš Souček and forward Patrik Schick) who came into contact with that staff member will quarantine and miss the upcoming Nations League Games.
Next up – Monday 7 September
Scotland travel to Olomuc in the Czech Republic while Israel host Slovakia.