Scotland dilemmas for Steve Clarke as decimated squad prepare for Ukraine showdown

As the players accepted the applause in the aftermath of Saturday’s victory over Republic of Ireland, it was noticeable that Steve Clarke had hurriedly made himself scarce.

There were of course media commitments to attend to. But there was also the feeling of there being little time to lose. It is not enough for an international manager to be tactically astute. They must be turnaround specialists too.

Clarke is preparing his bruised and weary group players for another high stakes encounter against Ukraine tomorrow. Although effectively a cup final, Scotland are in the slightly tricky situation of knowing a draw will also secure the spoils. It is something else for Clarke to consider after a hugely trying day yesterday.

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The manager’s mantra after last week's win over Ukraine was that the players had secured nothing more than their status as a League B team. That remains the case. As thrilling as it has been for two near-capacity Hampden crowds, the efforts of recent days will count for very little should Scotland fail to secure a point in Krakow.

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There was already much occupying Clarke’s mind as he unknotted his tartan tie on Saturday night. Should he stick or twist? Should he play the back four system that has yielded six points from two games? Or, mindful of the circumstances where a draw would secure top place in Group B1, should he revert to a perhaps more solid back-three?

Injury concerns at full back on both sides of the pitch will likely influence his thinking following confirmation last night that Kieran Tierney and Scott McKenna had left the squad due to injury. Hearts pair Stephen Kingsley and Barrie McKay have been called up.

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Greg Taylor and Anthony Ralston are few people’s idea of first-choice picks at left and right back respectively, particularly for a game of such magnitude. They are both capable of playing at wing back, where they might be less exposed against a Ukraine side going all out for victory.

But then again, Scotland conceded three times while playing three centre-halves at Hampden in June. They then kept a clean sheet against the same opponents when Clarke surprised everyone by switching to a more traditional back four last week.

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Scotland manager Steve Clarke has a selection dilemma for Tuesday's crunch match against Ukraine in Krakow. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
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Now McKenna and Tierney have been ruled out, who could play as the extra centre-half? Kingsley? On his debut? Porteous? Again, on his debut? Declan Gallagher, a veteran of the side that triumphed in the Euro 2020 play-off v Serbia in Belgrade on penalties, would presumably come in. Although a late call-up, Clarke last week made a point of mentioning the St Mirren defender’s experience of playing in a tough away fixture. Scotland played a three at the back that night too.

Clarke might be hesitant about handing Porteous – who unjustly or otherwise has gained a reputation for rashness – a debut in such a high stakes encounter. What’s a manager to do? Already denied Liam Cooper, Grant Hanley and John Souttar, he might conclude he simply doesn't have the numbers to play three centre-halves.

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In Clarke we must trust. At least he feels comfortable he has players able to cope with a switch in system at short notice. Clarke praised them for taking on board a glut of information in the couple of days they had prior to the Ukraine game last week.

Ryan Fraser could come into Steve Clarke's thoughts for the match against Ukraine after two impressive cameos off the bench in the wins over Ukraine and Ireland. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)
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England counterpart Gareth Southgate, meanwhile, has further riled his critics by confirming that, despite the embarrassment of riches at his disposal, he is sticking with three at the back despite a run of five games without a victory, or even a goal from open play.

In contrast to Southgate, Clarke has enjoyed an almost faultless international window thus far. His substitutions, either enforced or tactical, have been sensible. He resisted any urge to panic at half-time on Saturday evening when armchair critics were screaming for alterations.

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It won’t have escaped Clarke’s attention that three of Scotland’s five goals in this window have been scored while Ryan Fraser has been on the pitch. He is another option for Tuesday, perhaps even at wing back.

Although ostensibly a Ukraine home game, the clash is being played on neutral territory in Krakow at the 15,000 capacity Cracovia stadium. An estimated 150,000 Ukrainians are currently based in Krakow. The number has swelled significantly since the Russian invasion of their country. There will be plenty of support for the ‘home’ team. However, Scotland have at least been spared the guaranteed partisan atmosphere of a stadium in Kiev or elsewhere in Ukraine.

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Scotland left-back Kieran Tierney comes off with a head knock during the match against Ireland at Hampden on Saturday. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Clarke accepts that this perhaps evens things up after the unsatisfying re-scheduling of the June World Cup play-off tie. It certainly means Scotland cannot complain if they come up short, even if the current injury list does seem unusually extensive.

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Ukraine is braced for an escalation in intensity of warfare following a renewed conscription drive in Russia. In this context, fretting about Tierney and McKenna’s absence feels a little off-key.

But Clarke has always been mindful to note the bigger picture. He is capable only of affecting matters on the pitch – and, even then, he may feel a little powerless once play begins. In saying that, his staff's attention to detail was again in evidence on Saturday.

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Ryan Christie revealed he waited to see where to place his penalty winner after a tip-off from set-piece coach Austin MacPhee that ‘keeper Gavin Bazunu tends to dive early (MacPhee's Aston Villa played Bazunu's Southampton in their last game).

In the absence of the suspended Scott McTominay, one player who can count on starting tomorrow is Callum McGregor. A fresh Billy Gilmour could be drafted in beside the tireless Celtic midfielder. McGregor sounded relaxed about the prospect of playing a third 90 minutes inside seven days. “I play 70 games a season!” he exclaimed on Saturday night.

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McGregor played in Poland as recently as earlier this month against a side from Ukraine. What Scotland would do for the 1-1 draw the Scottish champions earned that night in Warsaw against Shakhtar Donetsk. They might find the best form of defence is attack, particularly with such personnel problems at the back.

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