So many posers: How do Scotland line up in Serbia?
Not since November 17, 2007 has the Tartan Army experienced this feeling, the excitement and nervousness of being on the cusp of a major tournament. Back then, the opponents were Italy at Hampden, when an agonising 2-1 defeat ended Scotland’s dream of making it out a laden Group B alongside France and Ukraine and to Euro 2008. Had Alex McLeish’s men defeated Roberto Donadoni’s star-studded visitors, they would have been in Austria and Switzerland, dining at Europe’s top table.
The pain of Christian Panucci’s heavily-disputed winner can be dulled in Belgrade as Scotland, resurgent under the shrewd tutelage of current manager Steve Clarke, take on Serbia for a spot at the delayed 2020 European Championships. A one-off match, almost certainly behind closed doors, to end 22 years (well, it’ll be 23 once the event begins next summer) of being in the wilderness, since Scotland’s last match in a major tournament when Morocco vanquished them 3-0 at the 1998 World Cup.
Clarke is going to eastern Europe leaving nothing to chance. While two important Nations League fixtures in Slovakia and Israel follow the match against Serbia, there is little doubt which tie is the most important. That’s why the ex-Scotland defender has drafted in a squad of 27, keeping all his options open and having enough bodies to cope with any Covid-19 call-offs. With all three matches taking place on foreign soil, bringing in last-minute reinforcements will be tough.
The big question on every Scotland supporter’s lips is how will Clarke line up. Who will be the 11 men tasked with taking down Mladen Krstajic’s hosts? With the squad shorn of many regulars, the deputies did a fine job against Israel, Slovakia and Czech Republic last month, notching up a 0-0 draw (5-3 on penalties) and two 1-0 wins respectively. It makes Clarke’s job all the more tricky come Thursday when he names his team to down Serbia in their own backyard.
This one seems fairly straightforward. While in-form Craig Gordon, the goalkeeper in that aforementioned match against Italy, returns to the squad on the back of strong Hearts performances, David Marshall will keep his spot as No.1. The veteran Derby stopper is clearly Clarke’s go-to man and has been more than dependable in Scotland’s past few matches. Jon McLaughlin, who has impressed for Rangers when given the gloves this season, makes up a strong trio. Scotland are blessed in this department, but Marshall will get the nod.
It is highly likely Clarke will opt for a 3-5-2 formation, which can revert to a back-five when Scotland are put under the cosh. The Serbians are dangerous and Scotland will need to batten down the hatches at times. Andy Robertson, captain and Liverpool maestro, is a shoo-in at left-back. On the opposite flank, Motherwell right-back Stephen O’Donnell let nobody down last month and grasped his chance in the absence of Sheffield Wednesday’s Liam Palmer, who is back in the fold after injury. However, it’s O’Donnell’s shirt to lose.
Picking the three centre-backs appears tougher. Man Utd midfielder Scott McTominay filled in admirably at centre-half and his performances were enough to enhance a longer-term stay there. Scott McKenna is back from injury and playing well in the Championship for Nottingham Forest. His physicality would be useful against Serbian striker Aleksandr Mitrovic. Declan Gallagher’s level rose considerably last month and he would be unlucky to miss out, but the Motherwell captain faces stiff competition from Leeds United skipper Liam Cooper, who is also back from injury, and Grant Hanley, who has rediscovered his mojo at Norwich. On the left side of the three, Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney – often the centre of so much discussion – will probably get the nod, given his capabilities and level right now. That leaves Andy Considine and Greg Taylor in reserve, the former grasping his chance last month after years of consistency with Aberdeen.
Undoubtedly this is Scotland’s strongest sector. John McGinn is in fine form at Aston Villa and will be one of the first names on the team-sheet. On the assumption that McTominay continues in defence, Rangers midfielder Ryan Jack is in pole position to start in the holding midfield role. That leaves just one spot up for grabs. Celtic man Callum McGregor and penalty shoot-out hero Kenny McLean can lay claim to a starting berth, as can Southampton midfielder Stuart Armstrong, who surely would have played a vital part last month had a positive Covid-19 test not sidelined him. Who plays in there will be dictated by how adventurous Clarke wants to be. The occasion probably favours pragmatism, so McGregor appears a more likely candidate than Armstrong.
Ryan Christie’s ingenuity and ability was missed in October as Scotland toiled at times for inspiration. He can play in the hole between midfield and the final third. While Newcastle’s Ryan Fraser is also an appealing option, Christie’s dead-ball delivery and long-shot expertise – see his goal against Aberdeen at Hampden – could give him the edge. The bona-fide No.9 role is likely to fall to Lyndon Dykes, who has taken his Scotland chance since rapid improvement that facilitated a move from Livingston to QPR. Oli McBurnie plays at a higher level with Sheffield United, but has yet to score for his country, while Clarke has already intimated that Leigh Griffiths will be on the bench, as, in all likelihood, will be Callum Paterson, Oliver Burke and Lawrence Shankland.
However Clarke does line up, the reassuring fact is that he has options. Scotland head to Belgrade with a puncher’s chance, of that there is a little doubt. A nation hopes its manager can find the team to deliver the knock-out blow.