Alan Pattullo: Optimism among Scots still flickering

A Scotland fan sings her heart out in the stands. Picture: SNS

A Scotland fan sings her heart out in the stands. Picture: SNS

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SO THERE is now the horrifying prospect of the hoped-for party in Faro mutating into a weary trudge to the Algarve for a dead rubber with Gibraltar.

This is how much rests on the clash with Poland next month, when Scotland need to take at least a point to remain in the equation for Euro 2016 qualification.

The strangest aspect of Scotland’s failure to reap anything tangible from their latest double-header is that surprisingly little has changed. Admittedly, Scotland are now reliant on others for help – specifically Germany, their conquerors on Monday evening at Hampden. Automatic qualification has now slipped from Scotland’s grasp, sadly.

But, if Joachim Löw’s side ensure no points are dropped in Dublin next month and Scotland win versus Poland, there might not be any need to cancel the fiesta in Faro. Indeed, if Scotland beat Poland in their next, now critical assignment and Germany also claim three points in Ireland, the Scots are guaranteed to clinch a play-off place by finishing in third spot, providing they avoid any catastrophic slip-up against Gibraltar.

If this unfolds, they need not worry about what happens elsewhere on the final day, when Poland and Ireland are pitched together in Warsaw.

Of course, Martin O’Neill’s side can even be cast as Scotland saviours in the final analysis. Should they manage to beat Germany and then also defeat Poland in their last game, the Poles could even be dragged down into fourth place, courtesy of Scotland having a better head-to-record against them.

But this scenario still hinges on a date of dates at Hampden Park – 8 October, when Poland arrive for a match upon which Scotland’s hopes are dependent. Taste defeat then and suddenly it all becomes very clear. The calculations can cease – Scotland will take no part in Euro 2016, a nightmare scenario that is particularly bloodcurdling when it is remembered England (who have already qualified), Wales and Northern Ireland will almost certainly all be there. It’s not dark yet, we can note with some relief. But it is getting there. But then, if Scotland cannot beat Poland at home, in a game that was always likely to have a “cup final” quality about it, can they complain about not being in France?

If they cannot even take a point away from Georgia, where all their other serious Group D rivals have won, is there any surprise that fans are currently scratching around for shards of hope amid the rubble? A win in Tbilisi and Scotland, if not quite sitting in the box seat, could be contemplating the very realistic chance of automatic qualification in second place.

The thought persists that Scotland are simply not as good as some would like to believe. To be fair to Gordon Strachan, the manager has never made any great claims on Scotland’s behalf to be world-beaters. He applauds their workrate, while pointing out again and again how his hands are tied by the lack of physical presence at his disposal, and the absence of seasoned Champions League campaigners.

He bemoans the fact that so many of his players are involved in relegation issues in the English Premier League or else are recruited from the English Championship. Even those from the top flight in Scotland are all from one club – Celtic. The European experience they have accumulated in the past couple of seasons is of the more low-rent Europa League variety.

Currently occupying fourth spot in Group D, Scotland are merely living up to the expectations of those cold-eyed Uefa statisticians who calculated Scotland’s status in the fourth pot when the draw for the qualifiers was made. As for the romantics and dreamers among the Tartan Army, it’s fair to say Scotland are currently languishing somewhere below where it was hoped they might be.

These fans have, admittedly, been lured into such reverie thanks to some promising results and performances, specifically against Poland in Warsaw and at home against Ireland, when Strachan’s side overcame their opponents’ strong-arm tactics to secure a win.

These are the sorts of displays Scotland will have to tap into if they are to prevail against a Poland side motivated by the knowledge they can remove their opponents from the equation while, at the same time, enhancing their own prospects.

In Robert Lewandowski, the top scorer in all Euro 2016 qualifying with ten goals, they boast the type of world-class talent Scotland can only dream of at present. In the last week, Steven Fletcher, the rather-less-prolific Scottish equivalent, has added two further goalless appearances to an international career that has yielded only four goals in 23 caps, three of which were scored in one game against Gibraltar.

Spirits drooped when Chris Martin bounded on against Germany but, other than Steven Naismith, out of favour at Everton, and Leigh Griffiths, who Strachan was reluctant to play against the world champions due to his physical shortcomings,
who else is there? Jordan Rhodes’ exclusion remains a cause célèbre for Scotland fans. However, Strachan’s views on him are now clear, and they don’t differ much to those of Craig Levein before him.

It is too frightening to contemplate where Scotland would be without Shaun Maloney’s four-goal contribution in the current campaign. Even so, five goals in three matches against Germany and Poland shows Scotland are capable of shaking up even the best teams.

In comparison to attack, it isn’t quite such a stark case of no-one else being available in the middle of midfield. James McArthur has surely now done enough to secure a starting place against Poland, particularly since James Morrison is now suspended after picking up a booking against the Germans. But McArthur’s promotion reduces the likelihood that Darren Fletcher might feature.

If Scott Brown is fit, it seems certain he will retain his berth in midfield, placing further questions over the international future of his predecessor as captain. For the fourth competitive game in a row since coming on for the last two minutes against Republic of Ireland in Glasgow last year, Fletcher has watched from the bench. Strachan’s treatment of the West Bromwich Albion midfielder is speaking louder than words.

But, while more may now be questioning the manager’s methods, while the path to Euro 2016 might now look dizzyingly complicated, no-one will complain if Scotland somehow manage to make it there. And, by hook or by crook, they could still do it. A flame flickers on.

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