SCOTLAND return to action tonight, in the first of four remaining World Cup qualifiers. The national side take on Croatia in Zagreb, hoping to give the Tartan Army something to cheer about, or at least to maintain some respectability in Group A.
Scotland v Croatia
Friday 7 June
Venue: Stadion Maksimir, Zagreb
TV coverage: BBC Two Scotland, from 7pm
Starting line-up: McGregor; Whittaker, Martin, Hanley, Hutton; McArthur, Morrison, Snodgrass, Bannan, Maloney; Griffiths
Much of the build-up has been dominated by the fighting talk from the Croatia camp. Striker Ivica Olic said earlier this week that the home side should win by “two or three” goals, while former boss Miroslav Blazevic said that a five goal haul sounded more likely. For his part, current coach Igor Stimac has said his side “will not” lose, while James Morrison believes his Scotland teammates will use the Croatians’ jabs as motivation come Friday night.
On the face of it, Olic and Blazevic’s predictions do not sound far wrong. Croatia sit in second place in Group A with 16 points, trailing leaders Belgium on goal difference. As we all know by now Scotland are dead last, eliminated from World Cup contention with just two points from six games.
Croatia’s home record in this campaign is impressive - they have three wins from three, and have yet to concede a goal. Scotland have lost all three away ties so far in qualifying, and have conceded twice in each of those games.
Some good news for Scotland fans - two of Croatia’s big-name stars are out of Friday’s game. Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric and Tottenham defender Vedran Corluka will both miss the game through suspension, but the Croatian squad still boasts plenty of talent. Champions League winner Mario Mandzukic and former Rangers striker Nikica Jelavic are both included, alongside former Celtic triallist Stipe Pletikosa and 16-year-old Dinamo Zagreb midfielder Alen Halilovic.
As for Scotland, the absentee list is long and fairly illustrious: Scott Brown, James Forrest, Danny Fox, Lee Wallace, Gary Caldwell, Gordon Greer and Liam Bridcutt are all out, along with long-term absentee Darren Fletcher. Grant Hanley and Russell Martin are expected to start at centre-back, and will be tasked with stopping Mandzukic and Jelavic.
More good news for the Tartan Army - Croatia have never beaten the national side. Since the Balkan state started fielding its own team following its independence declaration in 1991, the two teams have met three times. The sides’ last game ended in a 1-1 draw at Hampden in 2008, while Kevin Gallacher’s goal helped Scotland grab a point on their only visit to Zagreb in a 1-1 draw back in 2001.
• Croatia are 74 places ahead of Scotland in the FIFA rankings, and are ranked fourth in the world at the moment.
• Croatia boss Igor Stimac started at centre back for the home side the last time the teams met in Zagreb, while goalkeeper Pletikosa started in the side’s last meeting five years ago.
• Scotland are 12/1 to win in Croatia on Friday; their hosts are prohibitive favourites at 1/4. The bookies rate a draw as a 4/1 shot.