Hanging on against Cyprus might well sum up a campaign that grinds to a halt tomorrow against the team from where it began in such shocking fashion eight months ago.
Steve Clarke has not been able to repair the damage inflicted by Kazakhstan on day one. He had hoped he might after replacing Alex McLeish. But there is some tangible evidence he is getting closer to creating a squad that can prevail in the play-offs in March. Unusually for what was essentially a dead rubber, the result on Saturday meant everything. Clarke has stressed how vital it is for Scotland to finish third in the group having been seeded third. It is within Scotland’s hands to do so.
But, as much as anything, a group of players who have gone through the mill these last few months probably needed some proof of progress. Successive wins against San Marino and Cyprus, when set against the aims delivered by McLeish on the campaign’s eve, might seem seriously humdrum. However, it is something for Clarke to cling to after a run of four successive defeats had shaken the Tartan Army’s confidence in him.
He is now targeting a third successive win tomorrow which would be the first time Scotland have achieved this feat since Gordon Strachan’s tenure.
It would mean Scotland requiring to put together a four-game winning sequence to reach the play-off final – or at least prevail on penalties if the semi-final is a draw after extra time.
Scotland triumphing four times in succession does not occur very often. A fifth successive win, be it on penalties or otherwise, would then be needed to reach the finals. It is why Clarke has spoken so often about momentum and why McLeish focused on this word when previewing the last Kazakhstan game. Without it, Scotland risk being sunk.
How instructive was the manner of victory over Cyprus? It is debatable. The side Clarke was able to put out was yet again one suffering from the multiple call-offs that seem to plague every squad assembled by a Scotland manager in recent times.
But he does seem to be getting closer to replicating the vibe and style he managed to establish at Kilmarnock, which was one of the reasons he was the SFA’s No 1 choice after McLeish was sacked in April. John McGinn, Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie all showed why they will in be line to start Scotland’s most important match for nigh-on 16 years in the spring.
McGinn now has five goals in 20 appearances for Scotland – the same total in both cases as Charlie Nicholas. Only 25 years old, the possibilities are endless for the Aston Villa midfielder. If there is one thing to be grateful for during this difficult campaign, it is his emergence as a goal threat.
The likelihood – or, indeed, the wish, if that is not being too harsh – is that three of the back five that played against Cyprus will have changed by the play-off semi-final. That is not to say Declan Gallagher did not acquit himself well, nor Liam Palmer – indeed, they were both among Scotland’s top performers.
But Clarke may hope he has other options in those areas, including those returning from injury, such as John Souttar. He seems to have completely cooled on the idea of completing the paperwork to allow Turkey-based Steven Caulker to switch nationality from England to Scotland. The centre-half returned to the Alanyaspor side this weekend in a 2-0 friendly win over Demispor.
While Greg Taylor performed well at left-back, Clarke will be pinning his hopes on skipper Andy Robertson being available in March, when Liverpool may well be homing in on an emotional and longed-for English title win. Kieran Tierney’s absence remains controversial. Could Clarke have been stronger with his demand that the Arsenal player turned up for duty – or at least joined up for tomorrow’s home fixture?
Perhaps. If Tierney plays in the play-off semi-final, it will be his first Scotland appearance for 17 months – since a 2-1 defeat by Israel in October last year. Where he will be deployed is something else Clarke will prefer to have had the chance to put into practice over the course of this double header.
Dundee United striker Lawrence Shankland is already out for tomorrow night’s clash with Kazakhstan after picking up a slight injury, believed to be a hamstring strain, prior to the Cyprus clash. Who knows what kind of form he will be in come March? Eamonn Brophy, meanwhile, has returned to the squad to replace him.
Clarke might not want to take any chances with Steven Naismith tomorrow evening now that he has earned his 50th cap and after he slumped to the ground in worrying fashion in Nicosia on Saturday before being replaced by Oliver Burke. Fortunately, there was no apparently serious damage inflicted on someone who has missed so much recent football due to injury.
Indeed, Naismith being Naismith, Clarke revealed he wanted to stay on. The striker conundrum is no nearer being solved this year after run-outs through the middle for Oli McBurnie, Burke, Matt Phillips, Brophy, Shankland and Callum Paterson.
Clarke has another 90 minutes in which to ponder that particular question. After that, there is the draw for the play-offs this Friday followed by the kind of break the manager may view as the biggest threat to whatever impetus has been gained.