Scotland boss Steve Clarke has named his squad for the Euro 2020 play-off against Serbia.
And there were few surprises as Clarke looks ahead to next week’s showdown and the Nations League games against Slovakia and Israel.
Can the national team end 22 years of hurt by qualifying for their first major tournament since the 1998 World Cup in France?
Eric Nicolson addresses the major talking points.
1 – Is this the best possible squad Steve Clarke could have named?
It would be very churlish to argue otherwise. There certainly weren’t going to be any leftfield Scots whose Caledonian heritage had only just been unearthed coming into the group at this pivotal stage. There is a time for experimentation but it isn’t now. And, funnily enough, there probably won’t be many call-offs between now and Thursday either.
My slight concern was that in trying to balance loyalty with bringing back a couple of high-profile players who are featuring for their clubs again, Clarke would lean too far towards the former. But, with an understandably bigger squad than usual, he has found the perfect mix.
2 – What do you make of Celtic star Leigh Griffiths’ recall and would you start him against Serbia?
He had to be in there – the squad that is, not the first XI. He is Scotland’s most natural goal-scorer and best free-kick taker. I wouldn’t start him in Belgrade – it would be madness to go with anything other than Lyndon Dykes and Ryan Fraser after they linked up so impressively against Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
But he jumps above Oli McBurnie, Lawrence Shankland, Callum Paterson and Oli Burke as first replacement if Clarke’s team are chasing an equaliser or an extra-time winner. Griffiths has belief in his own ability that none of his attacking rivals can match and also has that Ally McCoist-type aura team-mates and opposition defenders can sense.
Let’s face it, if Scotland beat Serbia it’s a case of job done for this triple-header but one of the two remaining Nations League fixtures would be the ideal time to try out a Griffiths-Dykes partnership.
3 – Where does Arsenal ace Kieran Tierney fit in?
You know things are going well for Scotland when that question only makes it in as number three on the list! As long as Clarke is manager and Andy Robertson is fit and well, Tierney won’t be left-back in a game that matters. Rightly or wrongly (rightly), Tierney is the one who will be moved about if he’s going to start.
There is no debate about the formation in Serbia – Scotland will match up their opponents with their three at the back.
But Liam Cooper and Andy Considine are both strong candidates to slot in to the left of Declan Gallagher, who has to play.
Scott McTominay is another must-start. It would mean benching Cooper, Considine and Scott McKenna (who would have predicted that a couple of months ago) but Tierney’s quality with the ball at his feet makes him my selection as the final one in the back three.
4 – Hibs fans reckon Clarke has made a mistake picking Dundee United’s Lawrence Shankland over Easter Road frontman Kevin Nisbet – do they have a point?
In terms of form this season, they do. But it’s very much a fringe issue. Shankland isn’t going to start any of the three games and Nisbet wouldn’t have either. If Scotland qualify for the Euros and Nisbet keeps scoring then, yes, I’d like to see him get his chance in a squad as Shankland did in the last campaign.
What I would say about the Dundee United man is that this will likely be the last time he gets included if he’s not scoring for his club. Had this been a leaner squad he couldn’t have complained if he’d been left out.
5 – Having watched Scotland at Hampden regularly under Clarke, what have you made of the recent results?
Where do I fill in my form to join the Steve Clarke fan club? This long unbeaten run has been as much as anybody could have reasonably expected from the Scotland team. Clarke’s decision to persevere with a formation the world and his wife were telling him to rip up after struggling to put away the Czech Republic’s flotsam and jetsam, and his decision to persevere with McTominay as a ball-playing central defender, have been utterly vindicated.
I was perfectly happy with the boring, hard-to-beat Northern Ireland-type performances against Israel and Slovakia. Who are we to get snobby about how we qualify for a tournament or progress up the world rankings in the Nations League?
But we’re starting to see some half-decent football break-out at times as well. After a worrying start, Clarke has really raised his game.
6 – Any areas for concern?
There aren’t any areas of concern as far as the squad selection is concerned. Everybody of importance who should have been picked, has been picked.
As for the starting line-up next week, I’ve got David Marshall, Robertson, Gallagher, McTominay, Ryan Jack, John McGinn, Dykes and Fraser all inked in. For the left-sided centre-half role I’m happy to see any one of Tierney, Cooper, McKenna or Considine fill it.
There are only two ‘problem positions’ – right-back and midfield playmaker. I know Stephen O’Donnell has improved but Liam Palmer is a better player.
In the middle, the day when Billy Gilmour is ready can’t come quickly enough. Callum McGregor has been a big disappointment for Scotland for too long, while Kenny McLean has been given more than enough game-time to persuade Clarke he can do better yet hasn’t seized his opportunities.
McGregor will start but if he doesn’t get near to his Celtic best, Scotland will lose. He is my biggest worry and has been for a while.
7 – Who has been the surprise package during Clarke’s reign and will we qualify for the Euros?
Declan Gallagher. This is a guy who wasn’t even playing that well for Motherwell at the start of the season but he was outstanding in all three of Scotland’s October wins. Not only was he making sure he won his own battles, he was keeping far more illustrious names around him right.
Scotland now need him to turn three outstanding performances into four. And every one of his team-mates will have to be at the top of their games as well.
I do think the Scots will win. The in-built fatalism of the national team and those who follow it was shattered by that penalty shoot-out victory in the play-off semi-final. Finding a way to win as opposed to finding a way to lose is Scotland’s new normal and that is what Clarke’s men will do one more time.