Scotland v Ukraine: Steve Clarke on the ‘signings’ making his Scots better as World Cup hoves into view

The game many thought might never happen is now just around the corner and fans are advised to expect a nerve-shredding affair.

Che Adams has enhanced Steve Clarke's attacking options since pledging his allegiance to Scotland.
Che Adams has enhanced Steve Clarke's attacking options since pledging his allegiance to Scotland.

The prolonged wait certainly hasn’t helped alleviate tension. Scotland clinched a play-off place as long ago as November 12 and learned who they would play later that same month.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February meant the originally scheduled date of March 24 saw the Scots play Poland in a friendly instead. The World Cup is drawing ever closer, but Clarke’s side are no nearer securing their place. The situation is set to become clearer late on Wednesday night.

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Scotland will either stand a win against Wales away from a first appearance at a World Cup finals since 1998 or they will face a further wait of at least four years to scratch an intensely felt itch.

Austin MacPhee, right, discusses tactics with Steve Clarke. The Aston Villa coach has made an impact with his set-piece expertise.

Everything hinges on what happens against Ukraine, who have been preparing for the fixture in Slovenia. A group of 21 players have been based at the National Football Centre in Brdo where they have been put through their paces. Many of them have not played any club football for months.

Clarke will have to decide whether to go out all guns blazing against a team that will be severely under-cooked or else adopt a more cautious approach in anticipation of what could be a long, anxious night. He's not buying the narrative that Ukraine are underdogs with little going for them in the context of this game except the backing of almost every neutral.

“These players are top class,” warned Clarke. “Don't be fooled. Maybe you don't recognise the names or know the level of Ukrainian football but they are always involved at a very good level.

“By the very nature of playoff games they tend to be quite cautious affairs,” he added. “Think back to the last playoffs against Israel and Serbia, neither game was a classic. They were quite nervy affairs. You just have to make sure you do what you have to do to get the result: don't make mistakes that will cost you goals and make sure you are clinical in the moments you do get to score a goal.”

Jacob Brown scored 14 goals for Stoke City in the 2021/22 campaign.

Helping to that end is set-piece expert Austin MacPhee. The former Hearts assistant manager now works with Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa and was brought in by Clarke last August to give Scotland the extra something that could be the difference between qualifying and not qualifying. MacPhee’s recruitment has undoubtedly paid dividends so far.

In the last six games, Scotland have scored four goals from set-pieces, including Scott McTominay’s vital late winner v Israel. Before MacPhee arrived, it was one goal in 20 games – a Grant Hanley header from a deep free kick taken by Stephen O’Donnell in the 2-2 draw with Austria last year.

“You certainly don't want to lose a game on a set play and it's always nice when you win one,” said Clarke.

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"Set plays are always important. It's why I addressed it after the Euros. I always analyse myself, my squad, my staff and look for a way to try and improve. I felt that though we weren't really bad at defending set plays and we weren't fantastically good at scoring off set plays, we were okay.

“I just felt if I could get someone in who could maybe improve us a little bit. Over the course of a group campaign if you can get two or three extra points by defending set plays well and maybe nicking a goal off a set play then that would improve us. Since Austin's come in our set plays for and against have improved.”

Another relatively recent acquisition who is proving their worth is Che Adams. The striker made his debut in the draw with Austria just over a year ago and has since scored four goals in 15 caps, with two coming in his last four games. Australian-born Lyndon Dykes has struck four goals in his last five appearances, but Adams is probably considered Scotland’s first-choice striker.

Still, there’s a chance both could start against Ukraine if Clarke opts for a high octane start in a bid to take advantage of rustiness in the opposition ranks. Clarke is supremely glad to have Dykes and Adams on board after successful efforts were made to convince them to switch nationality.

“We didn’t go and sign them, you can’t go and sign these players so you have to scout well,” said Clarke. “You have to know who is available to play for Scotland."

Clarke can understand why Adams delayed committing to Scotland while he monitored his England prospects. “He felt as though he had the talent to get involved with England when he was younger,” he said. “He wanted to see how that panned out and then I think we just got the timing right with him.

“Getting those two on board has certainly made us better because we were a little bit short in the striking department.”

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Stoke City’s Jacob Brown and “late developer” Ross Stewart, who has just helped Sunderland back into the Championship, provide back-up for Adams and Dykes.

“You guys and the Tartan Army have not seen much of young Jacob yet but he had a fantastic year in the Championship last season with a Stoke team that was middle of the table,” noted Clarke. “They were not a prolific team and he scored 14 goals with a few assists as well.”

Clarke reeled off the forwards at his disposal against Serbia the last time Scotland were involved in a play-off. As well as Dykes, there was Leigh Griffiths, Ollie McBurnie and Callum Patterson.

Although it mustn’t be forgotten that both Griffiths and McBurnie scored vital penalties in the nail-biting climax in Belgrade, Clarke seems happier with his options now.