No sentiment in Scotland's approach as Steve Clarke insists war in Ukraine won't impact motivation to win World Cup play-off semi-final

Steve Clarke never has any difficulty in establishing a necessary degree of emotional detachment when he applies himself to the task in hand for his Scotland team.

That capacity to blot out external factors and retain a single-minded focus may never prove more useful to Clarke than in his preparations for next Wednesday’s World Cup play-off semi-final against Ukraine at Hampden.

There is an understandable and unavoidable narrative surrounding the match in which the sentiment and sympathy of neutral observers is firmly weighted in favour of a Ukrainian squad playing against the backdrop of their nation’s ongoing military conflict with invading Russian troops.

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An element of mind games from a purely footballing perspective has also come into play in recent days with former Ukraine striker and now TV pundit Viktor Leonenko casting his country firmly in the role of underdogs and predicting they will be comprehensively defeated by Scotland.

“We’ll not be paying attention to any of that talk whatsoever,” said Clarke. “It’s good we are playing the game, first and foremost. We wanted it to go ahead, no-one wanted anyone to get a bye or to not play the match.

“It (neutral support for Ukraine) is not going to affect the game, how they play or how we play. We just crack on. It’s a game of football.

“Everyone across Europe has shown a lot of solidarity with Ukraine. We had the game against Poland in March where we raised a good amount of money for them.

Scotland manager Steve Clarke has his sights firmly fixed on overcoming Ukraine at Hampden next week to stay on course for a place at the World Cup finals in Qatar. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

“We know the situation they have in their country is horrendous. But it’s a game of football. They want to win and we want to win. I think it will be a good game, I really do.”

Clarke remains wary and respectful of the quality possessed by a Ukrainian squad who have warmed up for their trip to Glasgow with friendly matches this month against club sides Borussia Moenchengladbach, Empoli and Rijeka.

“It’s good they’ve had the chance to get out of the country and some of them have been in a training camp for a few weeks now,” added Clarke.

“They’ve also been playing friendly games with Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev. Obviously, they have another nine or 10 boys from around Europe who will join them.

Mykhailo Mudryk scores for Ukraine in their 3-1 friendly victory over Borussia Moenchengladbach in Germany on May 11. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

“They will have a good camp. They will be 100 percent ready – just as we will be.

“Everyone is saying they will be so motivated. But I think you’ll find our lads will be motivated to get to Qatar as well.

“We’ve waited a long time for this situation. It’s difficult for a country like Scotland to qualify for a World Cup.

“It’s difficult to put yourselves in this position, where we are two games away from going to Qatar.

Scotland captain Andy Robertson, pictured with the Champions League trophy after Liverpool's 2019 triumph, hopes to win the tournament again this weekend before reporting for World Cup play-off duty with his country next week. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

“Myself, my staff and my players are all determined to be there.

“We’ve had people out to all three games Ukraine have played, having a look and we’ll analyse it.

“It was only boys from inside Ukraine involved and a lot of them will drop out the final squad for these matches.

“We’ll have an idea over certain patterns of play, but that might change when they bring in the likes of Zinchenko from Manchester City, Mykolenko from Everton, Yaremchuck at Benfica and Yarmolenko of West Ham playing off the left.

“They are a good team, technically and tactically. They play on the front foot and they will come to Hampden to beat us.”

With potentially five games to play in June, should they overcome Ukraine to book a World Cup final play-off against Wales in Cardiff before three UEFA Nations League fixtures against Armenia (home and away) and Republic of Ireland, some expected Clarke to name a larger squad than the 28-strong party he announced on Monday afternoon.

Scotland's captain Andrew Robertson gets married shortly after the international camp. (Photo by CARL RECINE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

But despite the revised summer schedule which has even forced him to accommodate the wedding plans of some of his players, Clarke believes he is prepared for whatever circumstances are thrown up.

“I think the group is big enough, there are 28 there and I’ve tried to cover all eventualities,” he said. “There are other factors in it. There could be four games or five. Because you have to book your wedding so far in advance one or two of the lads – in fact more than one or two – didn’t know there were going to be play-off games in June or whatever, and didn’t know the window was going to stretch.

"So there are one or two who have little issues with leaving the camp for a day to go to a wedding and then come back in. There is that sort of thing that you don’t really think about too much. But the size of the squad is fine to cover it all.

“I’m not going to name and shame the ones who are going to weddings! Some have got to go to a wedding because they are the best man and some have to go to their own wedding. Andy Robertson’s is just after the camp, which is sensible planning by the captain.”

Robertson won’t join the squad until next Monday when he will hope to have a second Champions League winners’ medal in his possession after playing for Liverpool against Real Madrid in Sunday’s final in Paris.

Three years ago, Robertson scored in Clarke’s first game in charge of Scotland against Cyprus just a week after helping Liverpool beat Tottenham to lift the trophy.

"The lads who play at the top clubs understand what is required mentally and physically to go from big game to big game to big game.

“Andy has been involved in every game with the Liverpool lads to the death - every tournament, cup final, big league games.

“They understand the level required and how to get up mentally and physically for their next game.

“Hopefully he comes in with a smile on his face and they have another Champions League in the bag.”


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