Scotland’s 3-0 victory over Lithuania keeps the hopes of qualifying for the World Cup alive and it is a realistic ambition with 39 crucial days to come, writes Joel Sked
It is just over 280 days until Russia play ‘A2’ in the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. However, for Scotland, the next 39 days are the most important.
Thirty-nine days to decide their fate, or for others to decide it for them.
All going well it then becomes 180 minutes in the play-off stage to end a 20 year wait to reach a major tournament. One hundred and eighty minutes to turn optimism into realism, fatalism to ‘bloody hell, we’ve actually gone and done it...’.
Following Scotland’s comprehensive 3-0 victory in Vilnius over an anaemic Lithuania side, Gordon Strachan’s men have shown they mean business going into the home stretch. With 270 minutes to go in the group stage, in search of another 180 minutes on the Road to Russia, the unthinkable, the improbable is on.
Back-to-back 3-0 defeats to England and Slovakia, as well as a home draw with Lithuania had seen the campaign, by many, written off. Then Harry Kane’s heartbreaking late equaliser, sucking the buoyancy out of Hampden, suggested it was not to be.
Yet, seven points from the last nine available has opened the door for Scotland, even if they trail Slovakia by four points. The Group F table should look rosier come Monday night. Scotland will dispatch of Malta. (On that point, when saying Scotland will definitely win, anyone who winces because ‘it’s Scotland’, should be treated with contempt)
The Scots will see off the Maltese with ease, meaning fans can keep an eye, maybe an eye and a half, on Wembley Stadium where England welcome Slovakia. A favour is required from the Auld Enemy. On paper it is a foregone conclusion. It is not the type of game England slip up in in qualifying for tournaments. However, anyone who witnessed their performance in Malta will know it will likely be a nervy night at Hampden, and around the country, in bars, pubs and living rooms, because of England’s general mediocrity.
That being said all Scotland can do is win. That’s all they need to do for the next 39 days. Three more wins will see Scotland win four in a row in qualification for the first time since 2007, when the Scots saw off Faroe Islands, Lithuania, France in a memorable encounter at the Parc des Princes, and Ukraine as they tried to make it to the European Championships held in Austria and Switzerland. The last time it was achieved in qualification for the World Cup crisscrossed campaigns - 1998 and 2002 - when five wins were achieved.
Those aforementioned wins over France and Lithuania was the last time Scotland won a double-header.
Three wins in the next 39 days should claim second, but it is still entirely feasible that it won’t. Slovakia’s late goal against Slovenia was taken as a negative, but it could work in Scotland’s favour. Come the final game in the Stožice Stadium, Ljubljana, Slovenia may not have anything to play for.
Then there is the fact, finishing second does not guarantee a play-off spot with only the top eight runners-up reaching that stage, meaning one misses out. It is probably still too early to speculate as to those chances. At least until Tuesday evening when every team will be down to two remaining games.
Even though qualification is partly out of Scotland’s hands there should be room for optimism and hope. Scotland have shown progress in 2017. It is almost a reverse of the qualification for the expanded European Championships which started in positive fashion, Shaun Maloney’s winner against the Republic of Ireland making people believe, before it petered out.
While it should be caveated with the standard of Lithuania, who were worse than they were at Hampden. But a lot of that has to do with the development of this Scotland squad. Only Andy Robertson played in the previous encounter. There was a noticeable growth in the team on Friday evening.
Strachan, wisely, switched from the back three which worked well against England to a more conventional 4-2-3-1/4-3-3. Systems is are well and good, but it is how the team play within that, and Scotland played well, very well. In and out of possession there was a control and assuredness.
Scott Brown bossed the middle of the park as Celtic team-mate Stuart Armstrong, perhaps feeling he had something to prove after his mistake which led to Kane’s late goal in June, impressed in a dynamic shuttling role as number 8 and 10. He proved himself to be Scotland’s best vertical midfielder, continuing to arrive at the right time in the right position on the edge of the box. Another night he could have had a hat-trick. His goal may have been from a set piece and poor defending but he attacked the correct space well to put the away side in front.
Behind the midfield trio was a defence made up of four left-footed players, yet there was a nice balance. Christophe Berra continued his dominant performances with Hearts, while Kieran Tierney put in yet another poised performance at right-back. He’s still only 20 but he has impressed in three separate positions - in five caps - for his country.
Two of the key players were Andy Robertson and Charlie Mulgrew. Robertson put in a typical Robertson performance. Direct, attacking with verve, dangerous crosses. His goal was a thing of beauty, shifting his feet and angling the ball around the defender. Mulgrew simply strolled through the game, as if he was saving himself for more pressing matters. His passing from deep was excellent. It was key to not only keeping possession but building the game to attack, constantly breaking the lines with crisp passes.
Perhaps one criticism of the performance, James McArthur’s first-half passing aside, was the lack of clear-cut chances, or chances in the ‘danger zone’, the central channel of the penalty box. A lot of build-up play to the final third was swift and slick, one-touch passing taking opponents out the game, but despite some good movement from Leigh Griffiths there was, at times, a lack of invention.
With the trickery and pace of Matt Phillips, as well as the increasing depth, namely Matt Ritchie, Strachan is not short of attacking talent. He will be hopeful Robert Snodgrass finds playing time at Aston Villa. James Forrest suffered mild criticism. With such pace it is understandable fans want to see more from him - it was a common critique of many Celtic fans. Even when he is not influencing the game in an attacking sense he still offers width, stretching the game and working diligently.
Forrest is also part of the Celtic contingent which provides Scotland with a confident spine. Spain, Chile and, to a lesser extent, Germany have all tasted success with a team which has a group of players who have developed alongside each other in club football. It is something which should be encouraged rather than discouraged. With little time for international managers to work with the team, having a handful of players who have these on-field relationships is a massive boost.
And similarly, Scotland now have the versatility and flexibility which make Celtic such a tough nut to crack domestically. The ability to switch between systems comfortably at international stage, depending on the opposition is another key facet of a competent national side.
There is, of course, still much work to be done. Enough questions which prevent overblown or exaggerated confidence. But if anything, as Tom English said on BBC Sportsound: “This is a team with a future.”
The hope is that the future is brighter in 39 days. And luminous come 14 June, 2018. In Russia.