On a night described by Steve Clarke as “dreadful”, the (iron) curtain finally closed on Scotland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2020 through Group I. Defeat in Moscow last night leaves Scotland 5th in the Group, behind Kazakhstan and Cyprus. A visit from San Marino on Sunday brings the opportunity to return to winning ways.
*Disclaimer: I was on a flight during this match so reflections below are based on highlights / second hand*
Clarke’s Selection Hand is Forced
Steve Clarke made mainly enforced changes with Michael Devlin making his debut with Liam Cooper having left the squad injured and John Fleck replacing the suspended Scott McTominay for his first Scotland appearance.
Robert Snodgrass returned to bring experience into the midfield while Oli Burke started up front after Oliver McBurnie dropped out of the squad.
Scotland’s resolve melts in Moscow Fire
While Scotland held Russia goalless to half-time, their chief tormenter from the meeting at Hampden, Artem Dzyuba, promptly knocked their resolve. From a regulation corner kick, Dzyuba out-muscled Charlie Mulgrew and volleyed home for the opening goal.
What will really worry Steve Clarke is how Scotland’s defensive resolve appeared to melt under the pressure of going behind in front of a baying Moscow crowd. Russia added a 2nd and a 3rd goal within 13 minutes, leaving Scotland staring down another chastening defeat in Group I.
With Scotland’s Euro 2020 qualifying fate now hanging exclusively on the Nation’s League Playoffs, Steve Clarke’s top priority is to rebuild this squad’s fragile confidence ahead of two do-or-die fixtures in March.
On this evidence, there is much work to be done to ensure the squad are mentally prepared for a potential Playoff Final in the white-hot atmosphere of Belgrade.
Defensive Numbers Refuse to Add Up
Another aspect of Scotland’s recent performances that will be vexing Steve Clarke is the open-ness at the back. Scotland have conceded 17 goals in 7 qualifiers (14 in the 6 Steve Clarke has been in charge for – 2.3 per game).
While Steve Clarke’s fixtures since opening with Cyprus at home have hardly been kind – Belgium (A), Russia (H), Belgium (H) & Russia (A) and injuries to players including Kieran Tierney, Scott McKenna, John Souttar and Liam Cooper have deprived him of creating a consistency of selection, Scotland must improve at the back if they are to have any chance of navigating the choppy waters of the Nation’s League Playoff.
The next three games – San Marino (H), Cyprus (A) & Kazakhstan (H) offer a perfect opportunity to build consistency of selection, performance and morale ahead of the Playoffs. It’s an opportunity Scotland can ill afford to miss.
The Playoff Picture – Friday 11 October (AM)
The Playoff draw will take place on the 22nd of November 2019, once the current qualification process is over. This draw will finalise the participants of the Playoffs and the location of the matches. Due to Scotland’s higher ranking we know that the Semi Final will be played at Hampden.
The one-leg Playoff Semi-Final will be played on 26 March 2020 with the one-leg Playoff Final played five days later - 31 March 2020.
The Nation’s League standings dictate that Scotland will play Finland in the Semi-Final. However, Finland are currently in a qualification position for Euro 2020 hence would not require the use of the Playoff. In this international break they face Bosnia (A) and Armenia (H). Those two represent their closest rivals for 2nd spot. Two positive results and they’ll be as good as there.
As is stands, a random draw will determine which team replaces Finland. The current options are:
Bulgaria – FIFA Rank 62 – Sitting last in England’s group with no wins from 5 games. A home Semi-Final against Bulgaria would be an attractive option for Scotland. YES PLEASE.
Israel – FIFA Rank 86 – Fifth in Poland and Austria’s group with two wins from seven. Since opening with a draw against Slovenia and wins against Austria and Latvia, Israel are winless in four. Scotland have recent form vs Israel from the Nations League. FEELING POSITIVE.
Hungary – FIFA Rank 50 – Hungary are still in with a chance of qualifying automatically, sitting third – one point behind Slovakia and four behind Croatia. LESS KEEN.
Romania - FIFA Rank 31 – Like Hungary, Romania are also in with a chance of qualifying automatically, sitting one point behind Sweden. Their second last game against sees Sweden visit Bucharest which will likely determine their path. HARD PASS.
The Other Semi-Final
Norway v Serbia
Norway sit 4th in their group needing to overhaul Romania and Sweden to qualify automatically. In this international break they host Spain before travelling to Romania. They’ll need to win in Bucharest to have a chance of dodging the Playoff.
Serbia on the other hand are one point outside the automatic qualification place, sitting behind Portugal. Portugal have a game in hand against Luxembourg so will expect to stretch their lead to 4.
This Playoff Picture will evolve over this international break, with only two qualifiers remaining in November before the Playoffs are locked.
Dates for your Diary 22/11/2019: European Qualifiers play-off draw 30/11/2019: UEFA EURO 2020 final tournament draw
26/03/2020: European Qualifiers Play-Off Semi-Final (Scotland v Bulgaria / Israel / Hungary / Romania)
31/03/2020: European Qualifiers Play-Off Final (Scotland v Norway / Serbia)