Crunch time is here for Steve Clarke as Scotland look to solve problems in front of goal and enjoy a good night in Vienna

Having reached the halfway point in Group F on Saturday night, Scotland now face the turning point. The direction their quest for a place at Qatar 2022 will take may well be determined by what happens at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna on Tuesday.

Motherwell right-back Stephen O'Donnell (left) and Hibs striker Kevin Nisbet depart the Scotland team hotel ahead of the flight to Austria for Tuesday's crucial World Cup qualifier. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

The trip to face second seeds Austria has always stood out on the schedule as a potentially pivotal fixture, even more so after the teams drew 2-2 at Hampden on matchday one back in March.

Ever since then, Scotland have been operating with a steadily decreasing margin of error in what is now a three-way shoot-out with the Austrians and Israel for runners-up spot in the group behind runaway leaders Denmark.

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There is a combination of results on Tuesday which could leave Steve Clarke and his players feeling far more bullish about their prospects of securing that berth in next year’s play-offs.

Scotland manager Steve Clarke in purposeful mood during training on Monday ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Austria in Vienna. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

If the Danes maintain their 100 percent winning record against Israel in Copenhagen, then a win for the Scots would elevate them into second place in the group.

A draw wouldn’t be a calamity as it would keep Scotland a point ahead of Austria and in a position to take advantage of the notionally favourable sequence of their subsequent three qualifiers at home to Israel and away to makeweights Faroe Islands and Moldova.

The minimum requirement for Clarke, whose approval rating among the Tartan Army has been faltering since the underwhelming appearance at the Euro 2020 finals, is certainly to avoid a defeat which would see Scotland slip back to fourth place in the group.

Amid the myriad permutations, Scotland’s most significant barrier to progress remains a familiar one – a bluntness in attack which made Saturday’s 1-0 win over Moldova such a needlessly anxious affair.

Scotland midfielder Billy Gilmour was in high spirits during training ahead of the World Cup Group F showdown against Austria. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

In the 24 competition fixtures under Clarke so far, Scotland have drawn a blank nine times and scored more than one goal in a game just seven times. The only three matches in which they have scored more than twice were against San Marino, Kazakhstan and the Faroes.

Addressing the scoring issues

“You work on it,” was manager Clarke’s typically direct and pragmatic response when quizzed on how Scotland can address their finishing problem.

“But obviously shooting in training is different from shooting in games,” he added. “Getting a chance in the game, with the pressure of the situation when it’s 0-0, probably makes you tighten up. If you’re winning the game 3-0, you probably relax and stroke the ball into the bottom corner.

“But you’re also asking the wrong guy, eh? I was rubbish at finishing. I had 421 games for Chelsea. Ten goals. That works out at one goal every 42.1 games. It’s not a great ratio!

“Listen, for the players it’s just something that probably comes with the pressure of the games. We have to learn how to handle that pressure a little bit better and stay relaxed on the last touch.

“That’s all it is. Just stay relaxed. We’ll try and be calm. But when the games are tight and it’s 1-0 last home it’s more difficult.

“I think if we’d got a second goal against Moldova we’d have ended up getting three. We’d have been more relaxed and not so tight. It’s probably more in the mind than actually in the technique.

“Obviously if you score first in a game, especially away, you can try to control the game from a position of being in front. It’s always better to control a game in that manner than to come from behind.

“But if we have to react to coming from a goal behind, then we have a group of players who have shown they can do that.”

Making best use of his squad

Having started last week’s dismal 2-0 defeat to Denmark in Copenhagen with Che Adams supported up front by Ryan Fraser, Clarke went with a front pairing of Lyndon Dykes and Kevin Nisbet against Moldova.

He knows it’s an area where he has to get the balance right against an Austrian side who had a defensive nightmare in their 5-2 loss at the hands of Israel in Haifa on Saturday.

“In your mind, what you are looking for is which combination suits you best for the game,” said Clarke.

“We’ve also got Ryan Christie who can play up top as well. Ryan Fraser could have played but he’s obviously not with us now because of injury, which narrows my thinking a little bit between picking between the three front line strikers.

“What do I want from them? Obviously I want hard work. To use Dykesy, for example, I want him to link well.

“He has started the season well with QPR and has scored a few goals. He came here with a bit of confidence. Over three games in six days, it’s a big ask to play somebody in all three games, especially when you are asking for that physical shift up front.

“I have tried to share the load a little bit across the strikers. I will get two fresh forwards on the pitch against Austria.

“Che gives us something different, something unpredictable. Kevin is a natural finisher, although none of the chances actually fell to Kevin the other night. They all give me different qualities. They are all good, honest players and they work hard for the team, that’s something they have to do. The goals will come.

“Austria are the second seeds in the group, so we have to go and give a good performance. They’ve had one or two injury issues, the same as us.

“They haven’t had their problems to seek but sometimes that can galvanise a group of players so we need to make sure we’re ready for them and deal with what they can throw at us. Hopefully for us it’s another clean sheet and a good performance.”

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