Scotland suspensions: Steve Clarke willing to risk best players for World Cup rewards
To be the best, you have to beat the best and Steve Clarke is prepared to risk the best of his Scotland squad against Ukraine to earn a place at the World Cup next year.
Suspensions loom large over nine players in the national team pool for the one-off semi-final at Hampden in March, with a final against either Austria or Wales to follow for the victors and eventually a place at Qatar 2022 next November.
Talk of an amnesty on cautions accrued during the successful qualifying campaign have fallen quiet and the national team manager fears calls for a clean slate will go unheard. That risks his Scotland squad options – including central figures like John McGinn, Billy Gilmour and captain Andy Robertson – being severely hampered should the first hurdle be negotiated successfully.
For that to happen, Clarke will pitch in his strongest side, he says, regardless of the potential ramifications.
“We will have eight or nine on a yellow card versus Ukraine with the threat of missing the final if we got there. That’s a shame. We’re not the highest number of bookings, other countries are in the same position and potentially a lot of top players will miss a play-off final which is a shame because for those games you want all the best players on the pitch.
“There is no point trying to protect someone for the final, you have to get there. I picked my strongest team against Denmark. I think I had five players on the pitch who potentially could have missed the play-off semi-final.
“I’m a believer in playing your best team if you can.”
For Clarke, that simple solution has reaped the rewards and so far, so good with one long-awaited tournament appearance complete and another in the balance. But while the manager is seeking more appearances amongst top teams at tournaments more often, he wouldn't be keen on more frequent World Cups with the two-year option currently being debated by football’s governing bodies.
“The four year period with the Euros in between fits quite well into the international calendar and I’m happy with that,” Clarke added. “Maybe it’s because I am a traditionalist that I enjoy that cycle.
“The idea of the South American teams joining the Nations League is interesting and something that might be good. We can’t complain about it the way it is because it helped us to qualify for Euro 2020, but the idea in principle is quite good.”
A Nations League group with Ukraine, again, plus the Republic of Ireland and Armenia for the next tranche of fixtures and optimism high talk of winning the group and improving Scotland’s ranking could result in more regular meetings with the continent’s biggest and best teams through Pot One.
"Ultimately that’s what you want to do,” added Clarke. “All the players are the same, they want to compete against the best.
“We have shown over this last year that we can. We drew with the Dutch, went to Wembley and got a decent draw. We went to Austria and beat the team seeded above us and finished with a win against an admittedly weakened Denmark team.
“It was a good way to finish the campaign and if we can get into Pot One we would savour the test.”
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