Most important Scotland game in years set within context of those who are absent

Scotland Head Coach Steve ClarkeScotland Head Coach Steve Clarke
Scotland Head Coach Steve Clarke
Do you remember the last time? The last time Scotland seemed so near and yet so far. The last time a nation held its breath in a football context.

Of course, holding one’s breath has different connotations now amid virus emission concerns and as a makeshift Scotland prepare to host Israel in the national side’s most significant fixture since 2007.

Hampden in the … rain? It is now over 13 years since Scotland took to the field with their destiny so firmly on the line. Despite the Glasgow glaur, the task was clear. Beat Italy and a place at Euro 2008 – Scotland’s last appearance at a major finals was then only a matter of nine years earlier – would be sealed.

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There have been big games in the interim. The one that brought us to this point, nearly two years ago, against the same opponents, being one of them. England, of course, when it really was a case of Hampden in the sun as Leigh Griffiths arrowed two free-kicks past Joe Hart. Darkness soon fell. And then the game in Ljubljana when Scotland, leading 2-1 at half-time against Slovenia, stood 45 minutes from a play-off place for the World Cup in Russia. An equaliser scuppered that dream.

But you have to go back to that must-win clash against the then world champions in 2007 to find an occasion when there was more at stake. Italy repelled a powerful home performance through a combination of superior big-game mentality and awful decision making from the referee and a near-side linesman. Not that this winning goal, from a dubiously awarded free-kick, proved decisive in the end. Scotland would still have been eliminated with a 1-1 draw, an admittedly offside Barry Ferguson sliding in to equalise after Italy had taken an early lead through Luca Toni.

Looking back at clips now, they seem like footage from another age. In a way, it was. The pre-Covid age. There was bedlam at Hampden. And that was just at kick-off. People now remember it as being an atmosphere like no other.

The mist that shrouded Hampden that evening had an estimated alcohol content of 40 per cent. Fans were hugging without first stopping to check whether they were from the same household. It was bacchanalia.

Although a win this evening would take Scotland to within 90 minutes of next summer’s Euro 2020 finals, the prevailing mood is currently very different. The game is set within a context of those who are absent. Stuart Armstrong, Kieran Tierney and Ryan Christie - as well as about 50,000 members of the Tartan Army. All are casualties of the Covid age.

One of the first things Steve Clarke said after the 1-1 draw with Israel month was that he hoped there would be at least some fans present the next time the teams meet. It seemed like wishful thinking then. And so it has proved. Never mind fans, he’s now forced to lament the forced exclusion of some of his most important players.

Meanwhile, new restrictions affecting millions of Scots have just been imposed. It is hoped this new mini-lockdown, with all the stress it entails, does not coincide with confirmation of another major finals lockout for Scotland.

“I’m sure they will give everybody a lift if we get the right result and I think the fact that the government are tightening the restrictions in the way they are tells you that nobody is immune from this situation,” said Clarke. “Football certainly shouldn’t be immune from it. We are grateful to have the opportunity to play tomorrow night and hopefully put a smile on everyone’s face.”

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The countdown to tonight’s Euro 2020 semi-final play-off could not have been more challenging for the manager, who exhibited a nice line in understatement when describing the late drama as a “little hiccup” yesterday. “It’s been different, very different,” he said. “You don’t get this on your Pro-Licence, that’s for sure.”

Over and above the Covid-19 related casualties, he also confirmed that Scott McKenna – like Tierney and Christie, an almost certain starter – will miss all three games due to take place in the next seven days, as will Liam Palmer, who was also in line to keep his place following last month’s win over Czech Republic, and Oli Burke.

Clarke has been sent back to the drawing board. His likely formation of three-at-the-back was predicated on Tierney’s presence. Now it seems the manager will be forced to return to a back four, with Andy Robertson restored to left back.

The build-up was already hampered by the number of players involved in games on Sunday. There were only eight players training at Oriam on Monday.

Clarke has had only two full training days ahead with yesterday’s final preparations disrupted by the positive test result from Armstrong. Clarke had one more afternoon session to seek to put a re-worked team together.

Scotland have played only twice this year – as have their opponents of course. New protocols have had an impact on all aspects of the international camp. Press conferences are conducted via Zoom and with just one journalist permitted on the call. Contact has been limited, information, until yesterday, when it arrived in a hard-to-process rush, at a premium.

This is now the pre-match narrative. It’s incumbent that all these extraordinary details surrounding such a vital fixture feature predominantly in any preview.

Clarke will hope, together with an expectant nation, that there is no need to cast them up afterwards as excuses for failure.

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