The war being waged on Ukraine by Russia accounts for Poland providing the opposition for Steve Clarke’s men in a challenge match on Thursday instead of the Ukrainians being hosted in a World Cup play-off semi-final. It renders events at the national stadium on the south side of Glasgow largely meaningless, frankly. But Clarke can’t afford to think like that, and neither can those players he selects.
The job of all involved is to focus on their professional duties. And the rarity of an international for Scotland in which no points or tournament progress rests, gives Clarke licence to experiment. As does the loss of Scotland captain and the team’s trusted left wing-back Andy Robertson to Covid-19 on the back of striker Lyndon Dykes being rendered unavailable by injury. Not merely with selection, but also in terms of team shape.
The gap created in the domain ordinarily patrolled by the Liverpool full-back opens up an opportunity for Aaron Hickey to be handed his debut in that position. Essentially, that is where the 19-year-old has been excelling for Bologna, as he has impressively navigated his second season in Italian football. Interestingly, Hickey has had other clubs circling through his displays on the left of a four in a 3-4-2-1 configuration. That system could be well suited to certain Scotland personnel whose recent club form makes them hard to ignore.
Southampton’s Stuart Armstrong certainly comes into this bracket. The attacker has started every one of his club’s past 11 league games, and conjured up two exquisite strikes in the past month. He has a natural playing affinity with club team-mate Che Adams, who will lead the line for Scotland. Playing Armstrong alongside John McGinn would offer Clarke’s side real threat and industry in support of Adams, as well as adaptability in transitions.
With Hickey on the left side of the midfield four, Nathan Patterson - for all his toils to make any impression at an Everton that appear in freefall - would offer balance on the right flank. Their energy and drive could be infused with an experienced core if Ryan Jack was handed his first cap since November 2020 to link up with Callum McGregor. Pairing the Glasgow rivals as a sitting two would squeeze out Billy Gilmour. Chelsea’s 20-year-old playmaker has endured a grim time with a Norwich City doomed to drop out the English top flight, even if he has produced for Scotland across their near century-long best competitive winning run of six games. With another friendly to come away to the losers of the other World Cup semi-final play-off in Scotland’s section that pits Wales against Austria, Gilmour can still be utlised in this international break.
Craig Gordon is a given for the goalkeeping position; the Hearts no.1 belying his 39 years with his continued excellence. Likewise, there need not be any deviation from the norm in the centre-back trio. Scott McTominay, Grant Hanley and Kieran Tierney haven’t merely proved a reliable unit. The assurance with which McTominay and Tierney are adept at driving forward from the back again creates the potential for quickly turning defence into attack. Against a robust and capable Poland, Clarke’s men will require to be on-point in both departments.
Possible Scotland XI (3-4-2-1): Gordon; McTominay, Hanley, Tierney; Patterson, Jack, McGregor, Hickey; Armstrong, McGinn; Adams.