Scotland will aim to deceive themselves while trying to also outfox the opposition when they head to Kazakhstan later this month for their opening Euro 2020 qualifier.
Alex McLeish has revealed the travelling party’s watches will remain set on Greenwich Mean Time when they make the long journey to the Kazakh steppe. The time difference between Britain and Astana, where the game will take place a fortnight today, is plus six hours (Kazakhstan is so vast it has two different time zones, Kazakhstan Eastern Standard Time and Kazakhstan Western Standard Time).
While the scheduled kick-off time is 9pm local time the players will treat the match as starting at 3pm before then setting off for the second fixture in the double-header against San Marino. The plan is to avoid the players becoming too disorientated during a pair of logistically complicated assignments. Scotland will fly to their base in Rimini following the Kazakhstan game prior to taking on San Marino on Sunday night.
“There has been a lot of dialogue with the performance guys and different clubs,” explained McLeish. “We will stay on British time during our stay in Kazakhstan. That sounds a bit weird but that is how people travelling there approach it. I’m sure the players will get their heads around it.
“We had guys out there, including Graeme Jones our head of performance, for a few days,” he added. “They tried to change to Kazakh time and their bodies were all over the place.
“It was a nightmare for them, so we will stay on British time. We are trying to leave no stone unturned and get off to a flyer. We don’t want any excuses. Everything will be right for the players to make them feel 100 per cent ready.”
It will prove only the second time Scotland have played a competitive match on a synthetic pitch following the 3-0 win over Lithuania during qualifying for last year’s World Cup in Russia. The Astana Arena is where Celtic lost 4-3 against FC Astana in a Champions League qualifier in August 2017 but progressed 8-4 on aggregate after a 5-0 win in the first leg. Their problems in the away leg underlined why nothing can be left to chance – Celtic had drawn 1-1 in the same stadium against the same opponents at the same stage of Champions League qualifying a year earlier.
While the surface will be the same, the conditions facing Scotland are likely to be very different. The temperature can plummet to as low as minus 15 in late March but there is the option to use the stadium’s retractable roof.
“It is still going to be pretty wintry,” said McLeish. “We arrive there Monday morning so we will be training Tuesday, Wednesday. It will be Astroturf and maybe by the time we get on it the guys will be used to it.”
Meanwhile, McLeish does not expect to have to plead with clubs or ask for favours ahead of the seven-day trip – the squad is due to leave Glasgow on the Sunday evening following the Dundee v Celtic game, where several of McLeish’s squad will be featuring for the opposition. Although managers will have concerns about the potential impact of such an arduous journey at a crucial stage of the season – Celtic host Rangers on the weekend following the international break – McLeish believes he has credit in the bank after making concessions ahead of Scotland’s trip to Peru and Mexico last summer. He agreed to leave several Celtic players at home, for example.
“I haven’t sat down with the clubs or appealed to them in newspapers to be good to the national manager or Scotland as a whole,” he said.
“But at this time of the season, we aren’t the only country to have this situation. We will pick the squad and cross the bridge when we come to it.
“Last year we went to South America and I made a lot of concessions.
“Every manager wants to look after his own bag but we expect to pick the players and see where it goes from there.
“I’m not expecting Neil Lennon, Stevie Gerrard, Steve Clarke or Craig Levein to do me a favour,” he added. “I’ll pick the squad and expect everyone to be there.
“Obviously, the Old Firm game is immediately after our match against San Marino but we’ll look after the players – we would do that, anyway. There’s no hiding place now because we have the performance analysts and, when players hit the red lines, that’s when we take them out. You used to say: ‘He looks all right so we’ll just play him’ but we don’t take risks with anyone nowadays.”
McLeish added that he has not yet made up his mind about the goalkeeper situation but expects everyone to be available. Allan McGregor has had a recent run-in with the SFA after being banned for two games following his studs up challenge on Aberdeen’s Lewis Ferguson in the Ibrox side’s 4-2 win at Pittodrie last month. Craig Gordon, meanwhile, has lost his place to Scott Bain, pictured, at Celtic.
McLeish is confident McGregor remains available for selection despite the recent disciplinary issue with the squad scheduled to be announced on Tuesday. “That would be like me back in the day going up for one of my disciplinary hearings and shouting ‘Jock, Mr Stein – that’s it, I’m not playing for Scotland any more!’” he said.
As for Gordon, he added: “I am in a close dialogue with Woodsy [Stevie Woods, the Celtic goalkeeper coach] and we will make decisions when the time comes. We have had Bainy on the Central America trip and we know what his capabilities are. He has come in and done well for Celtic. There is a good fight between two fantastic goalkeepers. We are in luck.”