Scotland team v Ukraine: Steve Clarke's obvious starting XI blueprint for World Cup play-off showdown

There is an obvious (dark) blueprint for the Scotland starting line-up Steve Clarke is likely to select to face Ukraine.

It is provided by the first XI he picked for the towering 2-0 triumph at home to Denmark last November – which earned the World Cup semi-final play-off that lies in wait on Wednesday at Hampden. A couple of caveats require to be set out before delving into it, though.

Injuries prevented both Grant Hanley and Nathan Patterson from featuring that memorable evening. Their places then were taken by Liam Cooper and Stephen O’Donnell. It had emerged that Patterson, who was expected to be sidelined again this week, was back in light training. As a result, there was cautious optimism that the, thus far, underused Everton right-back would be available for deployment on the right of a midfield four in Clarke’s now default 3-4-2-1 formation, but the manager will now have to reshuffle after his absence was confirmed. Aaron Hickey and Anthony Ralston are other options.

Meanwhile, even after Norwich City’s, frankly, sorry demotion, the Suffolk club’s captain Hanley is ready to rock, or rather be the rock, in Scotland’s defensive triangle … as he has reliably been since relaunching his international career 14 months ago. This need not result in Leeds United’s captain Cooper making way from the side that swatted aside the Danes six months ago, though. A situation owed to the loss of Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney to a knee problem he sustained in Scotland’s last outings, the friendly draws with Poland and Austria in late March. Now a number of us humble members of the commentariat would push the case for Nottingham Forest’s in-form centre-back Scott McKenna, and not Cooper, to be the left-footed replacement for Tierney. However, two factors may count against such a possibility. Clarke isn’t a coach to make change for change sake, or set aside previous valuable service. Cooper has tended to be his pick when requiring an understudy for Tierney previously. Moreover, McKenna did not join up with the Scotland squad until Monday as a consequence of Forest’s Championship play-off final victory Huddersfield at Wembley on Sunday afternoon. The 25-year-old has little in the way of recovery time before, what is arguably, Scotland’s biggest game in more than two decades.

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Beyond this poser, there need be precious few for Clarke since nine of his starters against the Danes are available to him. It would be a surprise if he sought to deviate then from what produced such dividends in the November World Cup qualifier. That would result in John McGinn and Ryan Christie supporting central striker Che Adams – an attacking triangle regularly favoured by the national manager – while John Souttar would retain his slot on the right of Scotland’s back three.

If looking at other possible options, Lyndon Dykes could be paired with Southampton’s Adams in attack. This partnership has been utilised by Clarke in the past, most notably in the draw with England at Wembley in last summer’s Euro 2020 encounter. However, Dykes endured a lean time with QPR in the closing months of the season, not helped by fitness issues. He hasn’t scored since January, and it could make sense to have the striker on the bench should there be the need for a Plan B-style switch.

Probable Scotland team (3-4-2-1): Gordon; Souttar, Hanley, Cooper; Hickey, Gilmour, McGregor, Robertson; McGinn, Christie; Adams.

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Scotland head coach Steve Clarke on the training pitch ahead of the World Cup play-off against Ukraine. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)
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