Scotland manager Steve Clarke has maintained that his squad will not be caught up in the turmoil that has surrounded the off-on Nations League encounter in the Czech Republic on Monday night.
After a day of high drama, it emerged that all the Czech players and coaching staff involved in the country’s 3-1 win over Slovakia on Friday, including manager Jaroslav Silhavy, have been banned from participating in the Group B2 match against Scotland in Olomouc following a Covid-19 outbreak that initially looked as if it would lead to the game not taking place.
The Czech football association announced late on Friday night that it would not be going ahead because of quarantine rules surrounding contact with those contracting the virus, which came after West Ham United midfielder Tomas Soucek and RB Leipzig striker Patrik Schick had been told to self-isolate following contact with a backroom staff member who tested positive for Covid-19.
But the SFA countered that the cancellation had not been confirmed by Uefa. European football’s governing body then stepped in to state that the original scheduling would be met. That has forced the Czechs to scramble together a new squad and new coaching team.
Clarke refused to countenance that farcical nature of developments had undermined the credibility of Monday’s fixture. Equally, he would not concur with the belief it has placed a heavy onus on his team to beat a shadow home side, especially on the back of the disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Israel on Friday.
The Scotland manager said the perceived advantage offered to his team through facing a makeshift Czech team was “not really a concern” for him, and dismissed any suggestions that preparations had been impacted by the doubts over the game.
Moreover, he said no apprehension had been expressed to him by any club managers over their players travelling to an area where Covid-19 cases are at their highest level since the health crisis began to sweep Europe in March.
“Absolutely not,” he said when asked if any clubs had requested that their players be withdrawn from the squad.
“I haven’t heard anything, nobody’s been in touch with me,” Clarke said. “I’m sure there have been a few calls into the relevant authorities but we’ve got good people looking after us, we’re following all the relevant protocols. Dr John MacLean is with the team now in-camp, [and] has been involved in this process from the start. We’ve had assurances from Uefa in the Czech Republic that the new boys and staff that are getting called up, everything will be tested properly and done correctly. We’ll go there in a bubble and we don’t need to come across anybody. I’ve had four Covid tests in the last 12 days. We’re good to go and we take it at face value that everything’s good on the other side.
“In the current climate things can happen. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and we have to do what we’ve been doing since the very start and that’s react to certain situations. It would be unfair to go any further than that. We just have to react as best we can.
“Nothing’s changed for us. Obviously we had the same strange feeling last night [Friday] as everybody else had when the Czech association came out and said the game wasn’t going to be on. But it didn’t affect anything we did. We went to bed and woke up this morning, we had another Covid test, and then we went out to train. The boys who played had a little warm down, the ones who didn’t had a good session and tomorrow we will get back on the training pitch and everyone will prepare for the game.
“In terms of analysing and looking at the opposition, that is obviously going to be a little bit different. I would imagine whatever group of players comes in, whatever coach, it will probably be a similar system to the previous one. I don’t see too much changing in terms of the way they play. Obviously, with the personnel, we might not know quite as much about them because we have prepared for a different squad of players. But the most important thing just now is that we concentrate on ourselves and what we can do.”
SFA chief executive Ian Maxwell, sought to avoid creating a diplomatic incident about the Czech football association’s flip-flopping over the game. It seems likely that they initially felt they would avoid forfeiting the points when making their initial announcement – postponements are accepted for Nations League games by Uefa only in the event of countries being unable to assemble 13 virus-free players for ties. The governing body were clearly of the opinion that two days provided sufficient time for the Czechs to replace entirely the personnel for a home game.
Maxwell expressed his satisfaction that the fixture could be completed after they got “categorical assurances” the tie will be played in a safe and secure environment.
He said in a statement: “We were as surprised as Uefa to learn of the statement posted on the official FACR channels last night. Following extensive conversations late last night and this morning we have received categorical assurance that the match goes ahead.
“Furthermore, Czech Republic have confirmed they will be able to fulfil their obligations to the match and, more importantly, to the stringent Covid-19 testing regime that is sacrosanct to ensure the safety of our players and staff.
“While we empathise with all national associations during this period of global uncertainty, none the less we required and received absolute assurance that we will be entering a safe and secure environment having worked diligently in Scotland to maintain safety and adherence to Uefa’s necessary Covid-19 protocols.”
This was followed by an announcement from the Czech national team, which read: “Monday’s Nations League match between the Czech Republic and Scotland will go ahead as planned after negotiations between the Czech FA and Uefa representatives.
“Czech team will consist from new players and staff members.”
Clarke’s squad will travel to Olomouc on Sunday but the Scottish FA board members have decided not to fly to protect the team bubble as much as possible. Maxwell, SFA president Rod Petrie and board member Malcolm Kpedekpo were due to fly out.
The Czechs top the group after Friday’s win, while Scotland were pegged back at home to Israel and could only pick up a point despite Ryan Christie’s opener.
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