How Steve Clarke's understated Scotland stand up among the best after World Cup play-off qualification

Context demands to be applied to Scotland’s route to the World Cup play-off sealed in vibrant and professional fashion with the 2-0 victory in Moldova. And it is context that ought to warm the cockles of every single follower of the national team.

The sample size isn’t yet complete, of course. Steve Clarke’s Group F commitments won’t conclude until they face runaway section winners Denmark at Hampden on Monday - an encounter on which will rest Scotland’s hopes of claiming a play-off seeding that would guarantee them a home semi-final next March.

At this pivotal moment, though, the exploits of Clarke’s men across this current campaign genuinely stand up to any group showing by the national team across the past four decades. It could hardly be any other way when the victory in Chisinau was Scotland’s fifth straight competitive success inside 90 minutes and therefore allowed them to equal the best such runs - from 1995, and 1948/1949 - achieved in 94 years.

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Delve further into specifics and the impression that forms is Clarke has delicately nudged the dial forward following last year’s Euro 2020 play-off penalty shoot-out triumphs over Israel and Serbia. Two nailbiters that led to him becoming the first Scotland manager to guide the country to a major finals in 23 years.

Scotland manager Steve Clarke (right) applauds the fans after the 2-0 win in Moldova secured a World Cup play-off place. (Tim Goode/PA Wire)

Scotland scraped through then because he had succeeded in making them difficult to beat. Now they are a team that are able to tease out crucial wins.

It was 1981 that Scotland last topped a World Cup qualifying group. They did so with a record from eight games that read: four wins, three draws and a defeat. Right now, in an ten-game section, they boast six wins, two draws and a defeat. The last time they topped any qualifying group came en route to Euro 1992. Again, with eight qualifiers, they posted four wins, three draws and one loss. The second place group finishes that took them to the Euros four years later, and their last World Cup in France 98 were both earned courtesy of seven wins, two draws and a defeat - what they would emerge with from Group F if they could defeat the Danes next week.

All of which suggests that Clarke and his men are presently measuring up to the highest standards Scotland have hit the international arena across modern times. The national team have always largely lived and died by outcomes determined by a single goal - as they have in these qualifiers, with their latest success the first of their current sequence of victories not to be of that variety. Equally, though, it deserves to be noted that four of these victories have brought clean sheets, Craig Gordon’s penalty save preventing any nervy finish in the Moldovan capital.

The make-up, the set-up and the showing up sees Scotland under Clarke resemble the national set-up in the era of Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown. It wasn’t appreciated at the time that these were halcyon days; the country contesting two World Cup finals and two European Championships between 1990 and 1998. That was a consequence of Scotland rarely being a team to leave you on the edge of your seat. More often they would have you sliding down the back of it, frankly, between fretting and slumbering. However, the reality is that, just as with Clarke’s side now, they didn’t so much win ugly as win plainly. Scotland supporters should have never been sniffy about the understated beauty in that. And you can rest assured they won’t be now.

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