LIKE the England rugby team recently, Scotland must seek to find a way of coping with suffocating pressure against Poland at Hampden tonight. Supporters can only hope they deal more successfully with the challenge.
The level of expectation is perhaps lower – Scotland, after all, were seeded fourth and currently occupy fourth place in Group D. Even the most sanguine foot-soldiers among the Tartan Army would have to now concede that automatic qualification for Euro 2016 was always unlikely. But make no mistake; the devastation that will fall across the land should Scotland fail to secure a play-off place will be just as profound as that greeting England’s exit from the Rugby World Cup south of the border.
After the bleak chore of Saturday’s dead rubber against Uruguay, the England players must watch as the tournament goes on around them. Scotland, meanwhile, know very well the cost of defeat this evening: the very real prospect of being the only home nation not involved at Euro 2016. Risks might have to be taken. Caution may well have to be thrown to the wind. The loss in Georgia last month means everything rests on what happens tonight. Scotland cannot afford to lose.
Strachan himself made a comparison with England’s match with Wales at Twickenham 12 days ago. Asked whether he would urge his players forward should scores be level with 15 minutes left, he said: “My thought is – win the game – it might be like England v Wales.”
He isn’t conversant enough of the subtleties of rugby to have an opinion on whether England skipper Chris Robshaw should have elected to take a kick at goal rather than opt for a lineout in the final minutes of that compelling clash. But he can sympathise with how tension tends to warp clear thinking. And he can empathise with what was at stake.
“I watched that,” he said. “But when England had that decision to make I didn’t know what power they had in their locker, so I can’t say whether it was right or wrong. I just thought it was exciting, that’s for sure.”
Strachan is the one who must bear responsibility this evening. He is conscious of the consequence of failure to gain at least a point – and even a point might not be enough if Republic of Ireland are able to secure a point against Germany in Dublin.
Strachan would not entertain questions seeking to deal with matters beyond about 9.40pm this evening. Asked whether the outcome of tonight’s clash might affect his own future as manager, he was, as might be expected, deliberately obtuse.
“My future? My future’s quite healthy, thank you,” he said, before establishing that this was not a query about his vitamin intake regime. “I’ve no idea [what will happen]. As I said before, let’s get this out of the way. We’ll have a look at it after that.”
While Strachan was not as edgy and obstructive as feared, he was his usual cagey self when it came to personnel options. These have been reduced due to injuries to Ikechi Anya and Charlie Mulgrew as well as James Morrison’s suspension.
There was the usual elaborate dance as reporters tried to tease information from him about the team. He, in turn, performed a fox-trot around the subjects with his answers. Interestingly, however, he did not completely dismiss the possibility that he might play two strikers – not, perhaps, in an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation, but with one playing in support of the other.
“I think you can play two strikers if both are athletic enough to drop back into midfield and help you out,” he said. Steven Fletcher is certainly that, as is Steven Naismith and Leigh Griffiths. Strachan is likely to start with two of these three; probably Fletcher, who scored his first goal for Sunderland on Saturday since the opening day of the season, and Naismith.
Talk of 4-4-2 sparked memories of when Scotland were better equipped to deal with the threat of Robert Lewandowski, the Polish striker who has dominated the countdown to tonight’s game. In the absence of players of the calibre of Willie Miller and Alex McLeish, his old Aberdeen team-mates, Strachan will likely opt for Russell Martin and Grant Hanley.
However, Gordon Greer, credited with keeping Lewandowski quiet in Warsaw last year, has also been in the coach’s thoughts. Strachan has felt the anticipation building since he named his squad last week.
“I’m going through all these emotions at the moment,” he said. “What we have to deal with is a big game and a full house. I’m delighted that we have a full house.”
Emptiness will engulf the country in the event of defeat. But Strachan has, he stressed, thought only of victory. He has never picked a side to play for a point. Nevertheless, Scotland are in the position of relying on other results going their way. Strachan was asked whether anyone might have a radio with them on the bench to keep abreast of goings-on in Dublin. Strachan was aghast. “I hope everyone is concentrating on the game in front of them!” he said.
Attention is guaranteed. A tense, possibly gruelling but hopefully ultimately satisfying night at Hampden awaits.