If Steve Clarke and his squad hope to qualify directly for next summer’s Euro 2020 jamboree, you sense simply sharing the spoils with the Russians won’t be sufficient this time.
The Scotland manager is reluctant to place a “must-win” tag on tonight’s Hampden showdown with Stanislav Cherchesov’s side. But for a team who have been playing catch-up in Group I ever since that calamitous 3-0 defeat in Kazakhstan on matchday one, there is scant margin for error.
With head-to-head results separating teams in the event they finish level on points, getting the better of Russia will surely be critical to Scotland’s hopes of finishing behind expected group winners Belgium in the other automatic qualifying spot.
Clarke isn’t prepared to analyse the arithmetic too closely until the next three rounds of matches have been played – after tonight, Scotland face Belgium at Hampden on Monday before travelling for the rematch with Russia in Moscow on 10 October.
But he accepts that the Scots are in need of what would be regarded even beyond their own shores as a result of genuine significance. “It’s been a long time since Scotland had a win where everyone went ‘Ooof, where did that come from?’,” reflected Clarke.
“They almost did it a couple of years ago against England but unfortunately lost a late goal in the 2-2 draw at Hampden. There were a couple of good wins, probably going back to Croatia, when they were in the world’s top 10, but after that you are going back to the first Alex McLeish tenure where we beat France in Paris.
“So it’s a long time since we had one of those results where people were saying ‘Wait a minute, this team is alright. We have a chance here.’ And we have to do it – the quicker we do it, the better. If it’s Friday night, it would be great for this particular qualifying campaign.
“As a nation, we like to get excited. So it’s one of those results that we need. I have been very careful not to paint this as a must-win because it might be we draw the match then, football being football, you get a result somewhere else that’s the headline win. So we don’t want to put too much pressure on ourselves but, yes, it’s a chance at home against Russia to set down a marker and say we are still in this group and fighting to get out of it.
“It’s hard to say what we need. We won’t know that until we come through the next three games. Remember, Russia also have to play three games in that spell, so do Cyprus.
“So until everyone comes out of the next three games, it’s probably better to wait and see. If I say we must win against Russia and we don’t, then immediately everyone goes ‘That’s it gone’. That’s not the case in football. You always have a chance in the next game. It might be a small chance, but it’s a chance.
“If we lost, it’s going to be a bigger mountain to climb. But then I would immediately, as an optimist, look at the next game and say ‘What can we get out of that?’.
“Sometimes you find, going away from home, you can produce a result out of nowhere. It would be very difficult and very disappointing for us if we lost on Friday – but I wouldn’t say that would be it over.”
The odds remain in favour of Scotland having to utilise the place in the play-offs next March which they guaranteed by winning their inaugural Uefa Nations League group last year. But Clarke is defiant to resist any sense of inevitability regarding that scenario.
“At this moment in time, I just ignore the play-offs completely,” he added. “It’s away at the back of my mind somewhere. If you have the mentality where you are thinking about that safety net, then you’ll come up short. We have to come out of the group. I said that when I took the job. We have to approach this qualifying campaign flat-out, full steam. We want to avoid the situation of going into a do-or-die play-off. Qualifying by right out of the group would be much better for everybody. It would certainly be better for my heart.”
Clarke is entitled to take heart from the stream of praise for his methods which has come from the Scotland players since he replaced McLeish in June. A sense of positivity has been restored around the squad which now needs to be backed up by results on the pitch.
“You can say it’s a compliment to me but it’s also a compliment to the players because it means they are taking on board everything we are giving them,” said Clarke.
“We concentrate on ourselves, all the basic principles we want to put in place. On top of those principles, which hopefully make you a better team, you are relying on the players to show their qualities. If they do that within the right structure, then it will get us the results we need.”
With Aberdeen captain Scott McKenna out injured, Leeds United skipper Liam Cooper looks likely to make his Scotland debut in central defence.
“Liam is ready, if he is asked to play,” said Clarke. “He has played loads of games in the English Championship at a really good level, working with a really good coach in Marcelo Bielsa. He has been good within the group this week and I’ve enjoyed working with him.”