FROM the lounge of his hotel on Tbilisi’s Rose Revolution Square, Gordon Strachan has a panoramic view of the city where Scotland’s Euro 2016 qualification prospects will come into sharper focus this evening.
The vista of a ferociously competitive Group D remains cluttered and complicated with four rounds of fixtures left to fulfil. There are myriad permutations which will determine which of Germany, Poland, Scotland and Republic of Ireland emerge to book places at next year’s finals in France.
I haven’t looked at what we might need from our last four games in the groupGordon Strachan
Which is perhaps why Strachan is wise to look no further than the 90 minutes at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena against a Georgian side already out of contention, but still capable of damaging his squad’s chances of ending Scotland’s lengthy absence from major tournament finals.
“I’m completely blinkered,” said the Scotland manager. “I honestly haven’t looked at what we might need from our last four games in the group, I really couldn’t tell you.
“It wasn’t until last week that I actually knew Germany and Poland were playing each other on Friday night. I’ve said Germany, Poland or ourselves could win the group and that the Irish could still qualify. My attitude is simple – just keep playing and see where we end up.”
It is an approach which has served Strachan well so far, Scotland losing just one of their six group games so far and remaining firmly in the hunt for one of the two automatic qualification places.
Victory in Tbilisi would significantly enhance the possibility of achieving that aim and is why Strachan is treating tonight’s game in isolation, with no consideration given to next Monday night’s meeting with world champions Germany at Hampden.
Georgia have already lost at home to Scotland’s three qualification rivals and have not won a competitive fixture at home for three years, scoring just one goal in that desperate run.
But Strachan is wary of signs of improvement under new coach Kakhaber Tskhadadze, despite the 4-0 defeat the Georgians suffered against Poland in Tbilisi last time out.
“They are strong, they’re organised and they’re also actually feeling quite good about themselves,” observed Strachan.
“Although they lost to Poland, at 1-0 down it could easily have gone to 1-1. Georgia played well in that game, regardless of the final score.
“When we beat them 1-0 at Ibrox last October, we had to play our best football – what we think is really nice football – against them. We played fantastically well that day but it was only 1-0.
“We thought they would play with three at the back that day before realising after 30 seconds they were playing with a back four. We had to change that quickly and what I liked about our players was that it didn’t spook them.
“The Georgians are strong guys and have a real pride in playing for their country. I could see that at Ibrox. I saw how angry they were coming off the pitch afterwards because they had put a lot into the game.
“They have good attacking wing-backs with a couple of individual lads who can do well. But I think while our players know about these things, we’ve been doing a lot of work on what we do – a lot of work.
“We’ll just play the way we’ve been playing all the time. We’ll not change. We told the players in the very first meeting we had together this week ‘This is how we’re going to play’. Sometimes it can look defensive if the other team is fantastic when they’re attacking. I’ve heard it loads of times – ‘your defensive set-up was good, you sat in there’, when I didn’t really mean that. It just so happened that the other team pushed us back. But I think we have a system that the players like playing now, so we get on with it.”
Eight years after Scotland suffered a damaging 2-0 defeat on their only previous visit to Tbilisi in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, Strachan is aware of the perception that this is the kind of fixture where the national team are more likely to slip up than they are against higher ranked opponents.
But he does not regard that as an exclusively Scottish trait and instead wants to savour the fact his squad go into tonight’s game with a high degree of pressure and expectation still surrounding their qualification bid.
“You could say that about any nation, that they might slip up when least expected to,” said Strachan.
“If you look around, there are always games where every fan, critic or manager says ‘we should have won that, or got something from that’, but that’s always going to happen. That’s the nature of the game.
“Our thoughts at the moment are about winning this game. We’ll see how it pans out and we may have to take a draw somewhere along the line, but that’s not the plan at the moment.
“I know the closer we get to a chance of qualifying, the more excited people become. Absolutely. But I don’t know if that puts more pressure on us.
“If you think about it, the pressure was really on us a year ago at the start of the campaign because if you don’t do well in your first two games, it’s finished already, gone. So I don’t think the pressure is more right now than it was the day before we played Germany in our opening game, or the day before we played Georgia at Ibrox.
“But, yes, on Friday morning when I wake up there will be an excitement or stress, whatever you want to call it. But that’s not any different from the way I felt when I was a kid at Dundee, trying to prove myself in the reserves.”