Here we go again ... another massive night for Scotland against Israel
Here we go again. Israel v Scotland, part IV.
For the fourth time in less than 12 months, these two nations face off on the international stage. Add in the two clashes in 2018 and it will be six times 36 months. Who said it’s only the Scottish domestic leagues that throw up too many meetings with the same opponent.
And, like the couple that precede it, the latest chapter of the Scotland-Israel tome assumes huge significance for both nations as they, even at this early stage, bid to stay at the head of affairs in the race for World Cup 2022 qualification.
It may appear miserly to suggest that defeat for either of these countries would close the book on their chances of being in Qatar next year, but in a dog-eat-dog group that also contains Austria and Denmark, and with only one automatic qualification spot up for grabs, being vanquished in this match would have the writing on the wall.
Especially for Israel, who have already lost on home soil. Denmark were clinical and efficient in dispatching Willi Ruttensteiner’s men 2-0 and two defeats on their own patch to direct competitors for the top-two spots would feel fatal.
Scotland at least have some wriggle room, for John McGinn’s scissor-kick cut on Thursday night them a little bit of slack in that Austria didn’t claim all three precious points from Glasgow. But as third seeds, and up against two extremely solid outfits in the Danes and the Austrians, falling further behind them and Israel – even at this early stage – would be hugely detrimental to Scotland’s chances.
Manager Steve Clarke and his players will no doubt play down the significance of this match – “one game at a time, etc … nothing is decided after two matches” – and yes, to a point they are right. But we have been there before with Scotland, where we have played catch-up in competitive group and never recovered to get our noses in front when it really matters.
History repeating itself
Scotland midfielder Ryan Christie spoke in the wake of the Austria draw about heading east with a score to settle. Scotland may have ousted Israel on penalties at Hampden last October to set-up that famous Serbia Euro 2020 play-off win, but a month later the Israelis prevailed 1-0 at home and ended Scotland’s Nations League aspirations, also slowing down momentum from making this summer’s championships.
On paper, Scotland have a more glamourous squad than Israel – if such a term can be used to describe two middling teams in this sphere. Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal players adorn the Scotland pool, while Israel’s star men play for PSV, Shakhtar Donetsk and Hoffenheim. With justification, Scots should feel inferior to Israel on that point.
The last two sojourns there, though, have been challenging and that is where Scots feel wary of this match. Israel are well-organised, spirited and have a maverick forward in Eran Zahavi, who is in rich vein of form for his club, PSV. They have proven adept at snuffing out Scotland in an attacking sense, helped by goalkeeper Ofir Marciano and, until recently, defender Hatem Abd Elhamed playing their domestic football in Scotland. A lack of big names is masked by a big heart.
What can Scotland do to change things
Scotland boss Clarke has already hinted that changes will be kept to a minimum and one can expect the guts of the back-three to remain in situ. They will not have to deal with an aerial and physical threat such as the one posed by Austrian giants Sasa Kalajdzic and Adrian Grbic – the Israelis prefer to keep the ball on deck, using clever movement and the guile of Zahavi to open defences up. There is an argument that Kieran Tierney is a better option at left wing-back than Andy Robertson right now, purely on form, but captain Robertson – more suited to being a full-back – will not be left out for this one.
In midfield, Stuart Armstrong had a subdued match by his standards against Austria and his position is under threat from Callum McGregor, who looked assured when coming on and can add a little more defensive ballast away from home. Despite his excellent goal, McGinn’s distribution was sketchy at times and, with the energy to press Israel’s defence and a decent long-range shot, a role as an attacking midfielder or shadow striker isn’t out of the question. Restored to his more natural position after a stint as a central defender, Scott McTominay was excellent and must be kept in the engine room.
The big change will probably come up front. Lyndon Dykes did well, but Southampton striker Che Adams plays a league above him in England and it showed when he came on, with a neat first touch, smart movement and intelligent link-up play. Clarke would be bold to pair the two together – and this doesn’t feel like a game for uncapped Hibs forward Kevin Nisbet – so the likelihood is that one will start. Adams’ time feels like now after finally pledging allegiance to the Scots cause.
Whatever avenues Clarke decides to turn down, they will be significant on the road to Qatar. With Austria and Denmark hosting Group F’s bottom seeds in the Faroe Islands and Moldova respectively at the same time as Israel v Scotland, Clarke and Co will hope to (a) keep pace with the duo or (b), even better, seize upon either of them dropping points. Four points from the first two matches would be a successful haul, and one that has to be targeted if Scotland are to upset the applecart in this danger-laden pool.
Probable Scotland starting XI: Marshall; Hanley, Hendry, Tierney; O’Donnell, McTominay, McGinn, McGregor, Robertson; Christie; Adams.