Scotland willing to pay heavy price of progress against Ukraine: Aaron Hickey conundrum, no Andy Robertson, 'not back to normal'
Welcome to what could stand as the last few hours of Scotland remaining in the frame for this winter’s World Cup in Qatar.
There is no guarantee that this delightful sense of anticipation will still be felt tomorrow morning, or, indeed, even later this evening on what promises to be a night of nights at Hampden Park.
The other scenario is that Steve Clarke’s admirable side might be one step closer to achieving a great dream. Many of us have become pleasantly used to seeing Scotland’s name present and correct in Group B. The prospect of games against Iran, America and yes, England, is stirring the soul even if the setting – a human rights-free zone in the scorching Middle East – does not. There’s one other drawback. The identity of the team currently taking up last position in the group is a mouthful: Wales/Scotland/Ukraine.
There can only be one. An elimination dance will finally get underway this evening. When the music stops, Clarke’s aim is for Scotland and Wales to remain, separated by just one forward slash. A nightmare scenario for most Scots – though not necessarily former skipper Graeme Souness – is that Ukraine will be the ones occupying one of the two remaining seats alongside Wales. Oleksandr Petrakov’s side are equally desperate to head to Cardiff for Sunday’s play-off final and have the backing of most neutrals and even some Scots.
This outcome would certainly represent a new form of World Cup heartache. Scotland have managed to find ingenious ways of suffering elimination over the years, from being the first unbeaten team to be knocked out in 1974 to exiting on goal difference four years later after defeating the tournament runners-up. Then there was the agony in 1990 of waiting to learn if they were one of the best-placed third placed teams (they weren’t).
This, though, would be a new one; knocked out before even touching down. Silently erased from the equation. And what’s more, rather than earning Scotland the usual sympathy of plucky losers, this outcome would be greeted with near universal acclaim around the world. Whatever happens, the bravehearts are not Scotland. They are Ukraine.
Will there be any consolation in knowing that, if it can’t be Scotland left one win away from Qatar, then it will be a country pock-marked by craters from Russian bombs, whose civilians are still huddling in shelters and cellars? While it might take some time to process, it’s possible this knowledge could provide some balm. It’s certainly hard to completely divorce events in Ukraine from what will take place this evening.
The pre-match updates involving the opposition camp are not of the sort normally expected. The breaking news has not involved injury worries.
One upside of Ukraine having so many players who have not played a competitive game for several months is that it means few are carrying knocks. Instead, the update occupying minds yesterday was news Russian forces had taken half of the key city of Sievierodonetsk in eastern Ukraine. War continues to rage but it’s been decreed that football should and can go on.
“It’s definitely not back to normal,” observed Clarke. “But we always said we would be guided by the Ukrainians and how they felt about the situation and what they wanted from the situation. What they want is that their football team can come out of the country, prepare properly as they have for the last four weeks, and be ready for a football match.
“They want to give their country a lift, which is absolutely 100 per cent understandable. But we want to go to the World Cup as well. We want to give our country a lift. It’s very difficult to do but you have to separate the situation that the Ukrainians find themselves in and the context of a football match.”
Clarke was certainly not trying to downplay the enormity of the game – how could he? It is perhaps the biggest staged at Hampden Park since Italy were the visitors for an all-or-nothing Euro 2008 qualifier. He had no worries about Andy Robertson’s antics on an open topped bus as Liverpool celebrated their FA and Carabao Cup victories because it’s “one of the biggest games he has faced for his country … he will be ready to go.” Little, he added, could be read into Ukraine’s comparative freshness compared with Scotland. “I think the game is too big for that,” he said.
Recent momentous occasions, such as against Israel in a Euro 2020 play-off and Czech Republic and Croatia in what were actual Euro 2020 group fixtures, were stripped of some of their significance by the absence of crowd or, in the case of the latter two, a severely restricted one. The World Cup qualifier against England in 2017, though watched by a capacity crowd, was not quite a must-win scenario.
Tonight’s clash will be watched by over 50,000. Everything hinges on it. Clarke has some important decisions to make. Perhaps the greatest dilemma is who replaces Nathan Patterson at right wing-back – presuming the manager chooses to play with wings-backs.
The match has come too soon for the Everton player, who is trying to shake off an ankle knock. A player who fits the bill of replicating his high-energy runs down the flank is Aaron Hickey. The teenager, as comfortable with his right foot as he is with his left, has been used most often at left-back or left wing-back by Bologna this season. He has, though, been deployed on the right on several occasions since Christmas.
Hickey has already played in some of the great theatres in world football, including the San Siro. Clarke will have few worries about him rising to the occasion at Hampden, where he made his international debut as recently as March.
There are options, including Stephen O’Donnell, but Hickey is the coming man. He might give Clarke the intensity he will be looking for from the start as Scotland seek to maintain their World Cup hopes at the cost of becoming, if only briefly, the most unpopular team on the planet. It’s a price the manager is willing to pay.