Scotland are going to need a momentous performance this evening at Wembley if they want to prevent slipping to second bottom of the group – providing the other results go the way they are expected to.
As ever with Scotland, Gordon Strachan’s team choice provokes much debate in the offices and pubs up and down the country, as well as the indignation on social media. There has been calls for Strachan to unleash Oliver Burke and Leigh Griffiths against the England, and others for Strachan to make the switch to a five-man back-line.
No matter who Strachan picks to face the Auld Enemy the players, individually and collectively, will have to play with discipline, focus and a calm heads. There are, however, three players who will have to play to their utmost for Scotland to come away from London with a famous victory, getting the country’s quest to reach Russia up and running.
One of two areas Scotland are blessed with quality is between the sticks. While Allan McGregor recovers from injury, Marshall and Craig Gordon have fought it out to be the country’s number one. Gordon lost his place at Celtic earlier in the season, but a combination of uneasy displays from Dorus de Vries followed by safe performances from the ex-Hearts man saw him regain his number one status. However, that has not been enough to displace Marshall in the eyes of Strachan.
Marshall comes into the game off the back of a stellar outing against Southampton at the weekend. After conceding from a penalty he repelled attack after attack as Hull City managed to eke out a precious 2-1 win. Similar heroics will be needed at Wembley, where the goals always appear two feet wider and a foot higher. As has been noted time and time again, Scotland are at their weakest in the centre backs positions.
England are used to dominating the opposition at Wembley in qualifiers. English fans continue to turn up in their droves as their nation endeavours to break down resolute barriers. Scotland will follow suit to prevent the pace of England’s attack getting round the back of the defence. With so much expected pressure there will be a number of efforts on goal. Marshall will have to stand up to an expected onslaught. He will have to be concentrated and decisive. Catch the ball when he can, and when he has to punch crosses or parry shots, make sure they are away from danger. He has previous in similar situations, namely the Nou Camp against a Barcelona side featuring Ronaldinho. Strachan and the whole of Scotland will hope Marshall can channel his 19-year-old self with another memorable display.
The big news in the build-up to the game surrounded the return of Scott Brown who will take his place in the heart of the Scotland midfield. He has been fantastic under Brendan Rodgers, finding news gears, levers and levels that he perhaps thought he had lost. His all-action displays have been a hallmark of Celtic’s early success under their new manager, and it is hoped that such form will be transported into the dark blue, or on this occasion pink, of his country.
However, it is the man he replaced as captain, before handing the captaincy back on his retirement, that may have the biggest influence on how the evening goes for Scotland. Fletcher has come through horrible physical issues to return to the top level in England. He was a reliable and important performer for years with Manchester United. He has not quite replicated the form which saw him trusted by Sir Alex Ferguson at West Bromich Albion and for his country. If, as expected, Scotland go with a three-man midfield the onus will be on him to offer protection to the flaky defence.
His experience, in-game intelligence and safety-first use of the ball will be relied on at the base of the midfield. Some of his best work in the red of United was hunting down opponents in a high-tempo side. He has had to temper such urges in recent years, and it will be the ‘new’ Fletcher Scotland will need to patrol and protect. England will likely have the waning talents of Wayne Rooney playing off Harry Kane, as well as the crafty Adam Lallana coming from wide to play centrally. Getting into the correct positions, while communicating with his back-line and fellow midfielders will be essential in frustrating England and providing a foundation for Scotland to play.
The debate that continues to go on and on and on... and on. Leigh Griffiths? Chris Martin? Steven Fletcher? Many pundits and fans alike want Griffiths to start. He didn’t against Malta, against Lithuania or in Slovakia. There is little chance of Strachan opting for him now, especially as he is out of the starting XI at Celtic.
That leaves Martin or Fletcher. The former is much-maligned among the Tartan Army but his form has picked up in recent weeks with Fulham. However, he doesn’t offer the same range of attributes as Fletcher does. Fletcher is mobile, good in the air and technically proficient. No matter who starts up front they will have to summon their best performance in a Scotland jersey.
Fletcher has netted against the minnows, but it will be more about his all-round game this evening. His touch will have to be immaculate, he will have to hold onto the ball and he will have to get his head up and bring the team up the park. He can’t be sloppy, as he was in Slovakia. He will have to be switched on in and out off possession, dropping back onto Eric Dier to stop him getting on the ball. If he gets a chance he will have to take it. An A+ performance, which he is capable of, could see the difference between a narrow loss and a draw. Perhaps even something even more special.