After a massive high, there often comes a crash. The euphoria around Scotland’s long-awaited return to major tournament action was comprehensively wiped out on Monday by Patrik Schick, as the Czech Republic pooped the Tartan Army’s party at Hampden Park.
That defeat has backed Steve Clarke’s team into a corner; on Friday, they need to come out fighting. Where better to go to orchestrate a change in fortunes than Wembley – and who better to do it against than England? As soon as Scotland qualified for Euro 2020, this fixture became the immediate focus for virtually all concerned. Now that it’s here, it is interesting to read the rhetoric from both sides.
Scotland did not qualify for these championships simply to concentrate their focus on one match, or to enjoy the occasion. They have ambitions to qualify from Group D, and Clarke has repeatedly stressed the need to focus on each game in its own right.
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One down, and two to go; it just so happens the next one is against the “friends from south of the border”, as Clarke so eloquently put it earlier this week. The Scotland boss does not need to be told about the history between the sides, but he is at best apathetic about the rivalry and hyperbole that goes alongside it. He has spent more of his life living in England than in Scotland; he has forged his reputation in the English leagues; his children are English. Clarke will not whip himself into a frenzy ahead of this game, but instead focus on the improvements his team must make.
It’s an obvious cliché to think Scotland will lift their levels against England, but that is the bare minimum required following Monday’s disappointment. Clarke has publicly defended the performance, but he will have been frustrated to witness Schick escape two defenders to nod in the opener. Scotland also missed a handful of clear-cut opportunities, with Lyndon Dykes most culpable, which if taken on another day could have provided a different result.
The contrast to the ice-cool penalties converted in Belgrade in the play-off final against Serbia could not be clearer. Perhaps it was the welcome presence of a crowd, or the enormity of the occasion, but to be brutally frank, the Scots fluffed the lines when it mattered on their big day.
To take something from Wembley, Scotland must be more clinical. The Czechs had done little at Hampden before taking the lead, but when the chance arrived, they took it. Gareth Southgate’s side dominated Croatia in their opening match without looking like world-beaters, but it only needed one moment from Raheem Sterling to secure the points. England have the firepower to help them go all the way in this tournament – Scotland do not, hence why when chances do come along, they must not be spurned.
With that in mind, Che Adams looks a likely starter on Friday. A natural goal scorer blessed with fluid movement, his linkup play with Dykes yielded multiple chances against Luxembourg recently and provided much more attacking threat in a lively second half at Hampden. There might also be a place for James Forrest, after he showed his pace and creative threat from the bench.
Nobody can predict exactly what Clarke is thinking in terms of team selection, but the words of the Super Bowl-winning coach Bruce Arians spring to mind: “No risk it, no biscuit”. Scotland will not want to leave London with any regrets about what might have been – it seems a sure thing they will go on the offensive.
Yet that will mean nothing if the backdoor cannot be closed. The presence of Kieran Tierney on the Wembley pitch would lift Scottish hearts, but the man himself admits he is only 50-50 to play a part after a calf strain. Tierney’s attacking thrusts were badly missed on Monday, but he is also an outstanding, pacey defender who can counter England’s threat from Sterling and Phil Foden.
Tactically this game will have a different balance to Monday’s encounter with the Czechs. England will expect to dominate the ball in midfield, so Scotland must try to disrupt. Scott McTominay and John McGinn will hold no fears about doing this, but who will Clarke go for alongside them? Callum McGregor is an obvious choice, but the temptation to unleash Billy Gilmour may be growing by the day. Gilmour is a football novice, but has proved already in his short career against Liverpool and Manchester City he can dominate a game. If Scotland are to progress in this tournament, one wonders if the Chelsea man will have a significant role to play in the coming days.
The ghosts of history weigh heavily on this game, but will mean little come 8pm on Friday. Both teams are much changed – and undoubtedly better – since the last meeting four years ago, when Leigh Griffiths’ dazzling free-kicks were cancelled out by Harry Kane’s late equaliser.
For the Tartan Army, this is the ultimate matchup, and they are already descending on London in their thousands, but most will travel in hope rather than expectation. The atmosphere will be superb, even in a half-empty stadium, but the team that holds its nerve will be able to successfully drown out the noise and mayhem around them.
Scotland are on the ropes, and must respond, but like a red rag to a bull, the opponents who can provoke them more than any other are looming into view. Under Clarke, cool and calculated precision has resulted in progression – on Friday his team need to rediscover those values to keep their qualification hopes alive.
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