It has been difficult to make a case for Scotland’s defence, either figuratively or literally, during almost two decades of failure to reach a major tournament finals.
But if Christophe Berra and his fellow left-sided colleagues in Gordon Strachan’s back four can reach a milestone of sorts at Hampden tonight, then the dream of making it to next summer’s World Cup Finals in Russia might live on.
Not since 1999 have Scotland kept three consecutive clean sheets in a qualifying campaign, when Colin Hendry & Co shut out Estonia, Bosnia and Lithuania en route to the play-offs for Euro 2000.
That run can be matched if the Scots, on the back of their 3-0 and 2-0 wins over Lithuania and Malta last month, keep Slovakia at bay this evening in a Group F showdown they must win to stay in contention for a shot at the play-offs for the 2018 World Cup.
“In the last two games we’ve performed well as a team, scored goals and managed to keep the ball out of our net,” says Berra. “That’s what we are planning to do against Slovakia as well.”
Scotland’s most recent successes in tournament football, qualifying for the 1998 World Cup and 1996 European Championship, were both built on defensive solidity which saw Craig Brown’s squad rack up six clean sheets in a row during both campaigns.
As the current side look to establish greater resilience in that department, Berra’s central defensive partnership with Charlie Mulgrew, pictured, has been effective in recent games. They are complemented by full-backs Kieran Tierney and Andrew Robertson in a back four unusually comprised solely left-sided players.
“It’s the first time I can ever remember playing in a back four where we are all left-footers,” adds Berra. “In the past, every team seems to go for a balance of right and left. If anything, if you look at international football there is a tendency towards more right-footers than left. But we are looking forward to the challenge. I’ve enjoyed playing alongside Charlie, he’s a good player. The back four have kept a few clean sheets recently, so the two of us get a bit of credit for that, but it’s all about the team when it comes to defending. People up at the top of the pitch put in the work too and that filters all the way down.
“We’ve got two high-quality left-backs in Kieran and Andy. Kieran has been great for Celtic at domestic and European level and he’s switched to right-back for Scotland with no problem. Andy has played in the English Premier League for a wee while now, got a great move to Liverpool and he’s still a good age.”
Berra, who made his Scotland debut back in 2008, is now in his fifth qualifying campaign. Poised to win his 39th cap tonight, the Hearts captain is enjoying one of his most sustained runs in the side, having started the last three competitive fixtures under Strachan.
“If you look at the squad and the starting eleven over the course of the campaign there have not been many regulars,” said the 32-year-old.
“There has been a lot of chopping and changing. Whatever team the manager puts out for this one, everyone will relish it. It is massive game to be involved in and we all know the importance of it. It might be a nervy game, but, if we perform as we did against Lithuania and Malta, we will give ourselves a right good chance.
“This is maybe the first time that I have been involved when it has still been in our own hands at this stage of a campaign. If we win both our games, against Slovakia at Hampden and then in Slovenia on Sunday, it will be job done in terms of getting to the play-offs, which is what we were aiming to do beforehand.
“I must admit I have looked at it the other way as well – if we had held on at home against England instead of drawing 2-2 and got three points against Lithuania at home, then we would be top of the group.
“But everybody could say if we did this or did that, then we’d be in a better position. We are where we are because of the results we have got and it is one game at a time now. If we get a win against Slovakia, we know it is still going to be a massive game against Slovenia.
“I was on the bench when we lost 3-0 in Slovakia last year and it was a strange game. At one stage we were quite comfortable but, at the highest level, you can get punished very quickly and the mood of the game can change.
“They have got top top-quality players like Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel, to name a couple, and it is going to be a tough game for us. They are going to be coming here high in confidence after being unlucky in losing 2-1 against England at Wembley last month. But it is at Hampden under the lights on a Thursday night. It is going to be a great occasion and it is all to play for as far as we are concerned.
“It wouldn’t be the first time at Hampden we’ve done particularly well against top nations and, hopefully, we can raise our game again and put in an even better performance. First and foremost, it’s about getting the three points, no matter if we play and pass the ball really well and score great goals or if it’s backs to the wall and we just win 1-0.”