Signeul’s side are so close to finals but two hurdles remain, finds Moira Gordon
SCOTLAND are getting so close that they can almost touch a major championships. So close and yet so agonisingly far in the last two Euro play-offs, Scotland’s female footballers now have another chance.
But, while they are growing more streetwise, have more talent and are increasingly confident of earning their place among the elite, the task is, ironically, also becoming more difficult.
In the past, come the end of the group stages, Scotland have only ever had one play-off double-header to negotiate. Away goals and near misses have proved their undoing against Russia and Spain. But, on Saturday, Anna Signeul’s side will take on the Netherlands at Tynecastle in the first leg of a play-off semi-final, with the return leg on Thursday, 30 October. But, even if they come through that test, they will have another two games before they can book their flights to Canada for the 2015 World Cup.
“It is going to be tough,” said Scotland coach Signeul. “We have to be at our best and the whole squad will have to play well.”
The Scotland cause will be hindered by the absence of captain Leeanne Ross but Lisa Evans is back to increase attacking options. “It is sad that Leeanne won’t be available for the first two games but, if we can get to the next stage, I am hopeful that she will be involved.”
But the Swede knows that she has accumulated a squad which is full of quality.
If she can get her first choice players fit and ready for the challenge, she is buoyed by the fact that they believe in themselves as much as she does. Much of that confidence is due to the fact that Scotland are getting closer and closer to competing on the biggest stages. In the current qualifying campaign, their only defeats came against Sweden and they rattled in goals against every other side – earning respect along the way. Scotland also have the knowledge that they have faced the Netherlands several times in the past few years and know what it feels to beat them.
“I think that will help, definitely,” said Signeul. “That is one of the reasons we started playing in the Cyprus Cup seven years ago because it is so good for the players to get used to playing against the best teams in the world. That’s how you learn and how we earn respect. It has helped us realise that we are as good as them if we play as well as we can.”
But knowing they have the beating of their Dutch opponents is one thing, doing enough in back-to-back games to contain their speed and attacking options is another test entirely for the Scots.
In Manon Melis and Vivanne Miedema the Dutch have two very potent weapons, possessed of real pace and poise and precision in front of goal.
Signeul, pictured, added: “The experience of play-offs will be a help. We know what to expect and I do not think the players will be nervous. I think these players can perform on the day.”
Such is her faith in her squad, she won’t simply set them out to nullify the visitors, Signeul wants to have the Dutch having to worry about the Scots.
“It’s a combination, of course, and we want to get the right balance. We know their strengths but we will look at what we are strong at as well. We also have speed in the team and we are good going forward.”
Which renders keeping possession and controlling the midfield vital components in any strategy.
“It will be a midfield battle and they have clever players who won’t give us much time to win the ball back if we lose it before they try to punish us so we have to be strong in the middle of the park.
“We have good technique now and we have to be smart but we also have to do all the other stuff. We have to work hard. We have to work as hard as we can.”
The hope is that this will be third time lucky. In the past two play-offs they have also started things off at home and they lost to Russia and drew to Spain.
“Hopefully, this time we can win at home! There are pluses and minuses to being at home in the first game but we need to make it count. We need to give ourselves a good start. Then we can go to Holland and play with no pressure.”
That wouldn’t be the job done. But it would be a great start and one that would offer real hope that the major championships are no longer to be observed but contested.