GORDON Strachan tends to avoid making any bold pronouncements about Scotland’s prospects like the plague. Now, as the group stages for the Euro 2016 finals enter their closing six weeks, the 58-year-old appears to have caught the qualification bug.
Scotland have four games left in Group D. Were they to take full points from them, they would toddle off as table toppers to a first major tournament in 18 years. Winning in Georgia on Friday, then at home to Germany on Monday, before securing victories at home to Poland and in Gibraltar next month, is hardly the likeliest outcome.
I’d be disappointed if we weren’t in this position, put it that way
When Scotland began the campaign against newly-crowned World Cup winners Germany and a burgeoning Poland, finishing above both – never mind higher seed Republic of Ireland – was unthinkable. With his side only two points behind Germany and three points off Poland, though, Strachan is at least willing to think big. “Those games are getting more important because we’re in there and we want to win the whole thing and get as many points as possible,” the Scotland manager said. “For that reason we don’t say we’re trying to pick up a point here and a point there. We just go out there and try to win games.
“The plan is to get through but I do believe that anybody in the top three just now – and I still think Ireland can qualify – can win it. Before we started I thought Germany would win it. They’re the world champions and they qualify for every tournament they play for – I think it was the 1960s, the last time they didn’t. With the brilliant form of Poland and our performances and the Republic’s performances – their draw over there – it’s made it a bit more difficult for Germany. Also because of the transition Germany have made as world champions, with a lot of people retiring and changing the team about. That has affected them.”
If Scotland were somehow able to dig out two wins in their double-header in the next eight days they would go above Joachim Low’s team in Group D as the qualifying campaign goes into the final straight. For the eternal pessimists hardened by Scotland’s plodding status in the international arena for almost two decades, this would have seemed the stuff of daydreamers little more than a year ago. Yet, Strachan says he isn’t pinching himself that Germany are catchable at this stage. “Looking at the way the players finished the season before I thought we could have been in this position,” he said. “I’d be disappointed if we weren’t in this position, put it that way.”
And because of the position Scotland find themselves Strachan doesn’t feel that he will have to lift the Celtic players who come to his squad this week following the Champions League failure away to Malmo in midweek. With Scott Brown, Charlie Mulgrew, James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths and Stuart Armstrong all selected, the Scottish champions are the club boasting greatest representation, by some distance, among his pool.
“It happened last year and it didn’t seem to affect us in any way,” Strachan said with reference to Celtic’s Champions League qualifying travails in Ronny Deila’s early days.
“It’s funny, when the squad gets together there are one or two who come along with a bit of baggage. As soon as they walk through the door and meet their mates they realise that this is completely different from what they’ve been doing recently and they get a lift from that. Most of the time we have 90 per cent bouncing through the door and 10 per cent slowly coming through the door, having a look at people and wondering what they think of their team getting beaten the previous day. Within a couple of hours most people are on the same level. I was disappointed for all my friends there at Celtic when they went out. But that’s in the past now. And we have a chance of creating something here.”
What counts against the possibility that Scotland will create something for the ages in the next month or so is the fact that an unevenness has been creeping into the country’s performances of late. They required to dredge deep into their reserves to battle back for a draw in Dublin in June.
Since then, main striker Steven Fletcher hasn’t had the best of times as Sunderland have endured a horrendous start to the season. He was forced to come off injured in midweek, but Strachan says he is confident of the forward joining up this week. “The doc has spoken to the Sunderland people and they anticipate he will be fine,” he said.
On the plus side is the health and form of James Forrest. The Celtic winger is a player beloved of Strachan but fitness issues have meant it is almost two years since the attacker started a competitive game for his country.
“James can be a key man for us, definitely,” the Scotland manager said. “In the first half hour of the first leg against Malmo Celtic had Forrest and Armstrong running at people and it was fantastic. With James we know what he can do, it’s just getting him on the field. But he is a big plus. He’s been injured for us for a while and we’ve had others playing terrifically well. It could have been worse for us if James wasn’t there and others weren’t around either. But we have a real good group and the standard has been fantastic.”
Post-match in Dublin Strachan said he felt he had perhaps over-thought his strategy. He now considers that might not have been the case. Yet, he made the point this week of stating that “within 12 hours” of meeting up, his players would be fully appraised of the tactics for Tiblisi. The encounter on Friday is one that Strachan feels has been made trickier by Kakhaber Tskhadadze having replaced Temuri Ketsbaia as Georgia coach since Scotland defeated them 1-0 at Ibrox a year ago.
“If you have a look at their game against Poland [in June] it was 4-0 but three of the goals were scored in injury time. At one down, Georgia had a couple of real good chances to equalise. So if you actually look at their 90-minute performance it was fantastic, it really was. They got beat by Ireland, I think Aiden McGeady scored right with the last kick of the ball. So it will be difficult but this is the challenge. When the players come along now this time they know they are four games away from playing in a top, top tournament so I don’t need to say too much to them.
“When you change a manager you get that initial dip. I have to say the last time we played them they were really dogmatic in the way they played. We expected they would play four at the back but they played three. But they have a real pride in themselves this group.” Strachan can sense he is close to restoring a pride in the Scotland side that many feared would never return.