PREVIEW – Serbia v Scotland – Playoff Final
Serbia vs Scotland – UEFA Euro 2020 Playoff Final
Thursday 12 November 2020 Stadion Rajko Mitić – Belgrade - Kick off 19:45 Live on Sky Sports Football, Sky One & Pick TV (Free-to-air)
After 543 days and 13 games of anticipation since taking charge of the Scotland National team, Steve Clarke arrives at the game which could define his managerial career.
Beat Serbia and Scotland will qualify for Euro 2020, thus ending 22 years in the international wilderness. Scottish football immortality and a statue on the steps of Hampden Park would surely follow.
Our recent feature article recapping those 22 years in the wilderness showed we have only come this close – within 90 minutes of qualification – three times before:
In the Playoff for Euro 2000, Scotland travelled to Wembley looking to overcome a 0-2 first leg deficit. A 1-0 win on the night was not enough.
In the Playoff for Euro 2004, Scotland took a one goal advantage to Amsterdam, only to be washed away in a bright orange, six goal tsunami in the second leg.
Our final qualifying match for Euro 2008 saw Scotland welcome Italy, knowing that a win would see us qualify. They had won the World Cup the previous year. We lost at the death.
Whatever Serbia are, and make no mistake they are a very good team with some world class players, they are not England, Netherlands or Italy.
Without doubt, this Playoff Final represents Scotland’s best chance of qualification since the France World Cup in 1998.
Where were we?
The mood music around the Scotland camp is positive. Thirteen months ago, the mood was more sombre. Scotland had just been humbled 4-0 in Moscow and were on a run of four losses in a row following Clarke’s opening win against Cyprus. Clarke spoke to the media about the message he’d given the players – to “make sure this is the lowest of the low”.
Since then, Scotland have gone a calendar year and eight games unbeaten, while negotiating a change in tactical system and last-minute player changes due to the ongoing pandemic.
In October, Scotland showed character to win their first ever penalty shootout in the Playoff Semi Final against Israel. This was followed up with back-to-back 1-0 wins over Slovakia and the Czech Republic to keep Scotland top of Nations League Group B2 and on the cusp of promotion to League A.
Record v Serbia Played 2, Won 0, Drawn 1, Lost 1
Scotland played Serbia for the first time (we played Yugoslavia 8 times previously) in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. The two teams met in the opening qualifier at Hampden, playing out an uninspiring 0-0 draw. While Aleksandar Kolarov and Dusan Tadic are two noteworthy players who remain with the national team, none of the Scotland players that day will line up in Belgrade.
By the time the return game rolled round in Novi Sad the following March, Craig Levein had been replaced by Gordon Strachan in the dug-out. Strachan saw his team slip to a 2-0 defeat in the snow.
The Scotland Squad
Clarke has aimed for consistency in his selection for these crucial games. The younger players who were involved in the last camp – the McCrorie twins and Ryan Porteous – have retuned to the under 21’s. In their place come the experience of Craig Gordon, Leigh Griffiths and Grant Hanley.
Unfortunately, injuries have taken their toll with Ryan Fraser (who had formed an excellent partnership with Lyndon Dykes) and Grant Hanley withdrawing from the squad. It remains to be seen if replacements will be called upon ahead of the trip to Serbia.
Interestingly, every player in the squad has represented Scotland before, demonstrating Clarke’s preference for experienced heads.
Serbia – FIFA Rank 30th – Form 1W, 2D, 2L
Make no mistake, Serbia are a very good side. While their form in 2020 is decidedly wobbly – they are in danger of being relegated from Nations League B – they did win the game that mattered most, beating highly fancied Norway 2-1 after extra time. After beating Norway they perhaps took their eyes off the ball, losing to Hungary and throwing away a two goal lead to draw 2-2 in Turkey.
Their squad is full of household names that will be familiar to fans of English and European football. At the back, their captain is 94-cap Aleksandar Kolarov, once of Manchester City and now of Inter Milan.
In midfield, Dušan Tadić helped propel Ajax to a Champions League Semi-Final, Lazio's Sergej Milinković-Savić scored twice against Norway and up front Aleksandar Mitrović has scored 36 goals in 59 caps.
They have weapons across the field and can hurt Scotland.
However, at time of writing there is confusion around whether certain players based in Italy and Germany will be allowed to travel to join the squad. It’s something to keep our eyes on, although we all remember the excitement about Georgia starting a 17-year-old keeper in 2007. Take nothing for granted.
For the first time in a long while, we can feel confident about the system and selection Steve Clarke will go with. Having played five games in a row using a three at the back system, this is surely what will be used in Belgrade.
The loss of Ryan Fraser to injury is a blow, although Ryan Christie could step in and fill the free-role behind Lyndon Dykes. It’s essential that Christie is able to push high up the pitch and doesn’t leave Dykes isolated.
For Scotland to be successful, they will need to be defensively strong but able to step out with the ball when appropriate. Dykes’ ability to hold the ball up will be essential to drag the Scotland team up the pitch.
I can’t predict we will win. I just can’t. Make no mistake, with Clarke’s system and the players confidence in it – we can win.
As discussed earlier, while Serbia are good, they’re not England, Netherlands or the reigning World Champions!
In recent Nations League games, this Scotland squad have demonstrated deep reserves of mental strength, confidence in the plan and the streetwise nature to calmly see out a win that has been lacking in years past.
Just over 18 months ago, Scotland lost 3-0 in Astana. It could have been more. The fact we can approach this Playoff Final with any level of confidence speaks volumes of the work done by Clarke, his coaching staff and the players.
After the Playoff Final, Clarke will have the challenge of either picking the squad off the floor or peeling them from the ceiling to focus on our remaining Nations League matches. Securing the one win to guarantee Nations League promotion would be a massive success worth celebrating, regardless of the result on Thursday.
If you’re unclear on what’s on offer for Nations League qualification, check out our explainer here.
This match will be bizarre in so many ways. Covid has prevented all normal ways we enjoy games – the travelling Tartan Army are grounded, and pubs are closed.
Sky Sports have been generous enough to broadcast the game on free-to-air TV meaning, while we have to watch at home, we can all watch.
If you’re watching virtually with friends, or watching alone, all I can say is good night, good luck and we’ll see you on the other side.