Kieran Tierney can help Scotland take small step to Germany 2024 alongside Celtic player in form of his life
Any attempt to portray tomorrow’s re-match with recent rivals Ukraine as potentially more important than the World Cup semi-final play-off against the same opponents earlier this summer is difficult to execute.
The World Cup is just weeks away. The pain of missing out will sting for some time yet and may even grow more intense as the big kick off on 20 November draws nearer.
It’s why newspaper back pages carried “End of the world!” headlines and other variations on this theme the morning after Scotland’s brutally disappointing 3-1 defeat to a supposedly rusty Ukraine in the delayed clash in June. The World Cup remains Scotland's holy grail.
It is hard to focus on the tournament after it. But that is what is necessary now. Knowing Scotland can secure another play-off place with three wins in the next seven days should be a source of considerable motivation.
Ukraine played a weary-looking Scotland team off the park at Hampden before coming up just short against Wales in Cardiff five days later, which illustrates why a win over Oleksandr Petrakov's side three months ago would have guaranteed nothing.
Prevailing in a two-game play-off is still a tough objective. However, far better to know such an assurance policy lies safely deposited in the bank before setting out on the regular qualifying campaign for Euro 2024 next year. Scotland’s fate in this regard rests on results against Ukraine, Republic of Ireland and then Ukraine again in Krakow in a demanding schedule.
Manager Steve Clarke must negotiate such a critical run of games without his skipper Andy Robertson, who has suffered a knee injury. Although the irrepressible left-back will be missed, Kieran Tierney’s return to both the Scotland squad and Arsenal first-team is timely.
The former Celtic defender spent time on the bench at the start of the season as he made his comeback after injury and Oleksandr Zinchenko bedded into the Arsenal side after his transfer from Manchester City.
Zinchenko has, however, since picked up a knee injury and Arsenal were frustrated when news he could be out for several weeks leaked from the Ukraine camp prior to Saturday’s 3-0 win over Brentford. Not only are Scotland missing their left-back and skipper, but so too are Ukraine.
Clarke is fortunate that he has a world class replacement in Tierney. On the face of it, this might have been the opportunity – and the excuse – to return to a more traditional back four arrangement, something he has been urged to do since Scotland looked so vulnerable in a back five set-up without Tierney at left centre-back during the last international window.
However, Clarke seems steadfast in his commitment to this formation, which he rightly argues has served Scotland well over the piece. He would prefer to keep Tierney in what has become his regular berth for Scotland. Indeed, Tierney's penetrating runs from left centre-back were sorely missed against Ukraine. They lend Scotland another dimension.
Clarke is conscious the 25-year-old is still getting up to speed again following injury. Playing at left centre-half means Tierney can choose when to advance and when to stay. The position is not quite as strength-sapping as left wing-back, where Clarke will happily deploy a man in the form of his life for Celtic.
Greg Taylor, who Clarke managed at Kilmarnock, played at left wing-back in Scotland’s 4-1 victory over Armenia in the international side’s last outing. He enjoys the challenge.
“It is another system to the one that I am used to playing for my club,” the 24-year-old said after Celtic’s 2-0 defeat on Sunday against St Mirren. “It is quite different to how I play for Celtic. It is another position for me to learn. But that certainly doesn’t mean it is something that I would be averse to playing.
“Any opportunity that you get to play for your country is a massive honour no matter what position it is so if the chance arises for me to feature there in any of these games, then I will be privileged to do so - I always am when I am asked to play for Scotland.”
Although he didn’t feature against Ukraine in June, Taylor has even more recent experience of playing against many of their countrymen. He started for Celtic in last week’s 1-1 Champions League draw against Shakhtar Donetsk, Ukraine’s leading club. He was particularly impressed by No 10 Mykhailo Mudryk, who scored Shakhtar’s equaliser that evening in Poland.
“Mudryk came on against us in the play-off game back in June,” he recalled. “He showed again last Wednesday night what a quality footballer he is. There has been a lot of talk about ruthlessness in front of goal in the last couple of weeks. That is an area where we have to improve in Europe. We have to start taking our chances and I am sure that we will.
"Mudryk showed just how ruthless he is last week. He got one chance in the game in the first-half and he took it with a top level finish.
“International football is a similar level to European football – you have to take advantage of the big moments that you get in a game and give your opponents as little as possible at the same time."
It’s something Scotland certainly didn’t do last time out against Ukraine. But, bar Robertson’s absence, they look slightly better equipped this time around. As well as the returning Tierney, Nathan Patterson is fit and in form at Everton and will likely slot in at right wing-back.
A repentant Ryan Fraser adds another option in attack. He could provide the extra edge required if Scotland are to take a very small step towards Germany by gaining a measure of revenge against Ukraine tomorrow.
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