Scotland possible XI v Ireland: Role for Celtic man to protect Tierney, Fraser and Dykes off the leash
Never look further than what is directly in front of you is one of those old aphorisms often uttered by the grandparent generation.
The grey-speckled whiskers of Steve Clarke betray that the Scotland manager has acquired such a status. And the 59-year-old is certainly a figure who seems to hold true to this pocket wisdom. A fact that makes one possibility entirely likely when he decides – if he hasn’t already – his starting line-up for the hosting of the Republic of Ireland in Saturday night’s pivotal Nations League encounter. Clarke may be decidedly reluctant to deviate from the selections that allowed his team to slide themselves back on the saddle and administer a horse-whipping to Ukraine with a 3-0 success in the competition at Hampden on Wednesday night.
Yet, assuming Armenia do not cause an upset when entertaining the Ukrainians hours before the hostilities begin at the national stadium in Glasgow’s Mount Florida, Scotland’s clash with the Republic shouldn’t be an encounter to view in isolation for Clarke. Scotland win League B Group 1, snare the insurance policy of a guaranteed Euro 2024 play-off and earn promotion to the top level for the next addition of the competition, if they win their final two games. The second of which pits them against Ukraine in Krakow on Tuesday. They could, though, lose to the Irish and still finish at the head of their section by completing a Ukraine double. Additionally, two draws would secure them top spot.
Therefore, resisting the opportunity to spread the load on certain players at the weekend could rebound in the more arduous fixture – on paper – that rolls around days later. Kieran Tierney was a composed and controlled presence as his novel berthing at left-back allowed the Arsenal defender to input to a back four deployed by Clarke for the first time in three years. The 4-2-3-1 structure it was set within accented Scotland towards attack. However, Tierney admitted afterwards he was still managing his fitness following his summer knee operation and at times in midweek he looked to be blowing. In light of this, giving him a breather before Krakow might be wise. The in-form Greg Taylor would represent an excellent deputy for the Republic visit. On the right flank, Aaron Hickey will surely be allowed to build on his impressive showing that ensued from the 20-year-old taking over the injured Nathan Patterson.
In the final third, Ryan Fraser and Lyndon Dykes infused Scotland with potency as game-changing late substitutes on Wednesday. Their scoring one-two – Fraser’s perfectly pitched corners powered in by the head of Queens Park Rangers frontman for a seven-minute double – delivered the coup de grace against Ukraine. The Newcastle United wide man and Dykes replaced Stuart Armstrong and Che Adams, respectively, after the Southampton pair had run themselves into the ground. To ensure their freshness ahead of the Polish group closer, and give Scotland a little more bite against Stephen Kenny’s robust side, starts for Fraser and Dykes could represent shrewd moves. Clarke changing a team that exhibited such balance and fluency in midweek would carry risks. Yet, there would be risks inherent in not doing so. Even if grandparents, for obvious reasons, don’t tend to ruminate much on playing a longer game.