Alex McLeish believes Scotland have a “fighting chance” of finishing in the top two of their European Championship qualifying group after yesterday’s draw in Dublin placed them in Group I with Belgium, Russia, Cyprus, Kazakhstan and San Marino.
The Scots have the safety net of the Nations League play-offs but the national manager hopes they won’t need it.
In a mixed bag of a draw, Belgium represent the toughest test by far. However, McLeish will fancy his chances against Cyprus, Kazakhstan and San Marino, leaving the Scots in a potential dogfight for second place with Russia, last summer’s World Cup quarter-finalists.
First and second place guarantees a place at Euro 2020 which will be hosted across 12 countries, including Scotland.
Asked if his side are playing for the group runners-up spot, McLeish said: “Yes, that would be the normal thinking, but Belgium have got to come to Glasgow and they’ll hopefully get a tougher game than last time – we’ve improved since then.”
That was in September, when Belgium won 4-0 in a friendly thanks to what he joked were “four breakaways that maybe we can arrest next time”.
Scotland are third seeds but McLeish noted how nations who were not expected to qualify made it to Euro 2016, when the tournament was expanded to 24 teams for the first time.
“We’d like to be inspired by smaller countries who went to the Euros last time as third and fourth seeds, like Northern Ireland and Albania,” he said. “We want to usurp the teams ranked above us.
“We would like to qualify via the group process and I’m confident in the group of players we’ve got – we’ve got a fighting chance.”
McLeish joked that Scotland have a “spy in the Belgian camp” in the form of Shaun Maloney who was recently appointed to Roberto Martinez’s coaching team.
“Shaun has adapted really well in his role and it’s been a joy to have him around the camp,” said Belgium boss Martinez who is married to a Scot. “I’m sure he’ll be very professional on the games.
“I see Scotland as an evolving, emerging nation. I had a disagreement with my daughter when we had to face England and now unfortunately it’s going to be with my wife, which is always a harder battle to win.”
For McLeish, the campaign will begin in March next year, with all ten qualifiers scheduled for 2019.
“We have some great teams to play against, long journeys, but I’m confident about the group of players we have,” he said.
Scotland have never played Kazakhstan before and the journey from Glasgow to Almaty is a 9,000-plus mile round trip.
Should the Scots fail to finish in the top two of Group I, they will go into the one-legged play-off semi-final in March 2020 when they will be at home, with Finland their likely opponents.
England, meanwhile, have been given a relatively straightforward qualifying draw against Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Kosovo in Group A.
Northern Ireland have it a lot tougher, with Michael O’Neill’s side paired with Holland, Germany, Estonia and Belarus in Group C.
Republic of Ireland – who only missed out on being drawn alongside the Dutch and the Germans because of their status as one of the host countries – are instead in Group D with Switzerland, Denmark, Georgia and Gibraltar.
Wales will face Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary and Azerbaijan in Group E.