the Motivation for Moldova
FRIDAY night will mark a year to the day since Scotland’s most significant moment for more than two decades.
Nearly all of us were going mental in our living rooms during lockdown when David Marshall saved Aleksander Mitrovic’s penalty that secured our first qualification for a major finals since France ’98. 22 and a half years since we last kicked a ball at a major finals, that night in Serbia ensured that the wait would be over for the delayed Euro 2020 Finals.
How fitting that, exactly twelve months on from the playoff drama in Belgrade, Scotland take to the field in Moldova knowing that victory, or just matching or bettering Israel’s result from their trip to Austria, will secure them a second chance at World Cup qualification via the playoffs.
Confidence in the Scotland camp should be high. Four wins in a row, three clean sheets and beating their two main rivals within that run in the battle for that coveted second spot. Adding to that, Moldova are sitting bottom of the group with just a solitary point from their eight games, which came against second bottom Faroe Islands, so this all sounds straightforward yeah?
Thing is, this is Scotland we’re talking about, and there’s rarely anything straightforward about us!
The last time we were in such a good position to finish second place in a group table was the Euro 2008 campaign. After seeing off France in Paris and dismantling Ukraine at Hampden, qualifying for those Finals was firmly in our hands, then we slipped up against the second bottom seeds Georgia and ended up missing out on Austria and Switzerland.
Our record against sides from the bottom two pots in our qualification group has been a large contribution as to why it took 23 years to qualify for a major international tournament again. Since France ’98, Scotland have taken maximum points against the bottom two in just one campaign, the Korea/Japan 2002 World Cup qualifiers. Stop that run on Friday and we’re into the playoffs.
Another thing we need to be wary of is our previous visit to Moldova. A dismal performance in a 1-1 draw spelled the end for Berti Vogts and saw us effectively out of the Germany ’06 campaign before a revival under the late Walter Smith nearly turned that around. Whilst that was over 17 years ago now, it still shows that we can come unstuck if we underestimate the opposition.
However, this is a Scotland side that is not affected by the past. They have overcome some pretty big hurdles over the last twelve months that has made their character stand out to elevate the expectation level in our Men’s National Team again. Getting through that playoff a year ago was the big one, especially when it looked as though a last minute equaliser was going to add a new chapter to the “glorious failure” novel, and being the team that broke that tournament hoodoo was significant. Then going to Austria and claiming that signature away victory that hasn’t been done since France (people will argue Croatia, and there are merits to that argument, but we were already out by that time) was another huge moment. Those results in Serbia and Austria showed the composure this team has to go to a difficult away venue and dictate a game, but also defend well in large spells.
Even digging out a result in the Faroes last month was a huge testament to the character of this team. In years gone by, Scotland would’ve slipped up in such a fixture having put in a pretty abject performance, especially in the first half, but this group had enough about them to keep going and get that crucial late goal from Lyndon Dykes to keep our four point lead intact.
Dykes suspension, coupled with the absence of Ryan Christie, is a major blow to us given his recent form for us having scored in each of the four victories. His loss leaves a big hole as to who will partner Che Adams (assuming he’s fit) in attack. Kevin Nisbet’s recent form at Hibs has been poor whilst Ryan Fraser, the likely candidate, has barely featured for Newcastle this season. New boy Jacob Brown is unlikely to be thrown into such a game, though you can never rule out a Steve Clarke curveball.
We also can’t forget that Grant Hanley is out (who’d have thought nine months ago that our fans would be disappointed by this), but there is less of a dilemma as you would imagine Jack Hendry will slot into his position alongside McTominay and Tierney.
Whatever the personnel, we should have enough in our locker to go to Moldova and claim victory. To get second place ahead of an Austria side who reached the last sixteen of Euro 2020, and an Israel side we’ve had such difficulty against over the past three years, would be a good achievement to give ourselves a shot at the World Cup. Yes, the playoffs will be very tricky whoever we’re up against, but that can wait until we get there. We have a pretty important job to do first.
As much as we loved the drama of the Israel game last month, I don’t think we’ve recovered yet from the emotion of McTominay’s injury time winner. So, let’s get this job done on Friday so that we can enjoy the Denmark game knowing that second place is secured. Going to Hampden on Monday needing to beat them is not a scenario we want.
Steve Clarke’s Scotland team have overcome some big hurdles lately. Let’s clear this next one to give us something to look forward to in March please!