Scotland's World Cup hopes hinge on heeding the lessons of 2007 and what happened the last time they won four-in-a-row
They are now displaying the attributes we used to admire in other teams. Other countries get barely deserved last-minute winners, why not Scotland? Other countries get the rub of the green, why not us?
These used to be the sort of laments heard as we picked over the bones of another hard-luck story. But not these days. At least, not right now. Steve Clarke is working miracles.
Two years ago this week Scotland had just succumbed to their fourth successive defeat, and second in a row by a margin of four goals.
Mikey Devlin was at centre-back in the 4-0 defeat to Russia which confirmed Scotland’s elimination from the campaign to automatically qualify for Euro 2020 – they of course got there in the end, via play-offs – and left them second bottom of the group, below Kazakhstan and Cyprus. It was a bleak retreat from Moscow, let me tell you. A 6-0 win over San Marino two years ago today then brought a measure of relief.
The complaints now seem restricted to winning while not playing well. The 1-0 win over the Faroe Isles certainly qualifies as fitting this description.
Clarke’s decisions, such as dropping Nathan Patterson to play Ryan Fraser, can be hard to fathom sometimes. But he did send the young Rangers full-back on for Fraser, who looked as rusty as expected for someone who has played half an hour of club football since August.
Patterson delivered the assist for Lyndon Dykes’ winner and helped by the fact he was only on the pitch for such a short spell he is also now free to play in the potentially decisive game in Moldova after avoiding being yellow carded.
Of course, there might yet be a sting in the tail. That wouldn’t be an enormous surprise. A trip to Chisinau to face the bottom team in the group has all the ingredients to make it seem entirely possible that the Scots might re-engage with old habits.
Fretting fans old enough to remember 2007 are already scouring the Moldovan squad for 17-year-old goalkeepers ready to step in for their debut.
Memories have been stirred of the last time Scotland went into the penultimate game in a group on the back of four qualifying wins in a row. Tails were up. Confidence levels rose further when it became clear that opponents Georgia had a goalkeeper crisis, meaning they had to field a teenager who had not even played a game for his club, Dinamo Tbilisi, at that point.
There were two other teenagers in the starting XI, one of whom, Levan Mchedilidze, headed in the opener after just 16 minutes. A second half goal confirmed Scotland would need to secure the three points they needed in the last game at Hampden against Italy, the group leaders and reigning world champions.
The Italians did to Scotland what Scotland have done to Israel and the Faroe Isles in recent days by scoring a barely deserved winner in the final moments.
It’s a scenario that can very easily be repeated next month if Clarke’s side do not apply themselves properly against Moldova, when a win would render the final appointment with the Danes not exactly meaningless – Scotland will likely need a result to ensure they are seeded in the play-off draw – but a lot less stressful.
Clarke seems alert to the dangers as any manager of Scotland should be. "We are on a good run. We are pleased with six points from this camp, it was a tough camp,” he said. “Like you say, four wins in a row is good but we need to go to Moldova now and make it five.
“We are not getting carried away. We understand what is in front of us. That is what we focus on next month. We enjoy the six points from a difficult October camp and look forward to November.
“I think the players have shown over the last couple of years the improvements we have made and that they have the belief they want to do well for their country. When it is 0-0 you just have to keep going and hope you get the break.”
That was certainly what happened on Tuesday night in Torshavn. Scotland kept going and they got that break via a winner bundled in four minutes from time. They then survived the excruciating wait for VAR to deem the goal legitimate.
“Anyone who comes here knows they have been in a battle,” reflected Clarke. “We did not play as well as we could in the first half, that’s definite. We were a lot better in the second half when we were a bit more aggressive with our passing, when we tried to get in behind them and cause them problems.
“That led to better control of the game in the second half and eventually the winning goal.”
The difficulty Clarke now has is identifying someone to replace the suspended Dykes, the scorer of three winning goals in his last four international appearances.
Che Adams would seem to be an obvious choice to lead the line but the manager will have to find a way of ensuring whoever is playing off the centre forward gets closer to the action than was the case on Tuesday.
Scotland struggled to get players into the box. Ryan Christie, chosen over Hibs’ Kevin Nisbet to support Dykes, was more often seen outside the penalty area. Even Dykes was posted absent on too many occasions.
As he has proved on several occasions now, he is an edge-of-the-six-yard box striker and needs to be in that area. He will be missed in Moldova. As Clarke remarked afterwards in Torshavn, the challenge is for someone else to step up and become a hero.
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