Play-off places up for grabs for Scotland players in Cyprus
Clarke has lost a number of players to injury and international retirement before and after picking his squad for the final two group games, against Cyprus and Kazakhstan.
Andy Robertson, Scott McTominay, Liam Cooper and Ryan Fraser pulled out at the start of the week while the likes of Charlie Mulgrew, Kieran Tierney, John Souttar, Stuart Findlay and Leigh Griffiths were missing from the initial squad because of fitness and injury issues.
Robert Snodgrass quit Scotland after playing in the 4-0 defeat in Russia last month to join the likes of Scott Brown, James McArthur and Matt Ritchie to have departed the international scene in recent times. Steven Fletcher has also made himself unavailable for the time being.
Clarke called up Derby County midfielder Graeme Shinnie, Celtic winger Lewis Morgan and Hibernian defender Ryan Porteous to supplement his squad and he insists the players who have travelled for Saturday’s game in Nicosia are in pole position to nail down places for the qualifying deciders in March.
On the withdrawals, Clarke said: “They were frustrating at the start. Obviously when you name the squad and get call-offs it’s frustrating. But I’m learning quickly in this job, you have to move on.
“I’ve got 23 players in this squad who want to be here and all want to be part of what we want to do. They are all here, they have all trained well this week, and I concentrate on those 23.
“They have got two games before the March play-offs, so anybody who is here in camp has got a great chance to catch my attention and make sure they are in the squad in March because they have the opportunity to make themselves pick-able. If they do well for the team now in these two games then there’s every chance they will be involved in March.”
Clarke will need to make at least two changes to his back four following injuries to Robertson and Findlay to continue a trend - he has only named an unchanged back four once in six matches and has fielded nine defenders.
“What we are trying to do is put a structure and a way of playing that no matter who the personnel is, they understand what’s expected of them in the context of the team performance,” Clarke said.
“Hopefully you saw that in the last couple of games and hopefully you will see that in the games going forward.”
Celtic’s Greg Taylor looks set to feature at left-back with Tierney and Robertson out and Clarke is unconcerned that his former Kilmarnock player has only played once in three months.
“All professional players now, if they train well and work hard for their club they have certainly got 90 minutes in their legs and, if Greg is selected to play, I’m sure he will be fine,” he said.
Clarke started his reign with a last-gasp win over Cyprus before suffering four consecutive defeats with the loss of 13 goals against Belgium and Russia. But he is looking to build momentum after last month’s 6-0 win over San Marino and leapfrog Cyprus before the final group game against Kazakhstan at Hampden on Tuesday.
“Obviously the big games in the group are the games we wanted to produce a big win and we didn’t manage to do that,” he said. “But we have still got the chance to finish third which is what we have spoken about quite often recently. If we finish third in the group we play to our seeding.”