Steve Clarke on Scotland's 'almost impossible' situation and why John McGinn backside comments are 'unkind'

When someone is guilty of moaning about a trivial worry, such as the long wait for a flat white or inability to find a reliable cleaner, the likelihood is they will be met by a groaned reply citing “first world problems”.

Steve Clarke with John McGinn as Scotland prepare to face Denmark at Hampden. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)
Steve Clarke with John McGinn as Scotland prepare to face Denmark at Hampden. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

What, then, might Austria manager Franco Foda or Israel manager Willi Ruttensteiner make of Scottish complaints about the risk – risk! – of a few players missing a World Cup semi-final play-off in March.

They are presently staring into the abyss after falling short in their target to finish second at least although Foda's side do still have a chance of squeezing into the play-offs after topping their Nations League group last year.

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Austria were in control of their own destiny until Scotland popped up in Vienna in early September and earned the win that completely altered the dynamics in Group F. Another four straight victories since then, the latest being Friday’s decisive 2-0 win over Moldova, sent the Scots to the play-offs instead

These hard-earned victories have come at a cost although it’s been a cost worth paying. The thrilling 3-2 success over Israel last month saw four of Scotland’s key men pick up yellow cards to leave them walking a suspension tightrope. Andy Robertson, Billy Gilmour and John McGinn were booked along with Nathan Patterson, who also collected a yellow card in Chisinau on Friday.

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The Rangers wingback now misses tonight’s clash with Denmark and, depending on how Clarke chooses to treat this suspension threat issue, there could be as many as seven watching their step against the visitors for fear of being ruled out of next March’s play-off semi-final.

Still, it's great, isn’t it? Because this scenario – a sold-out match against group winners Denmark, play-off safely secured - is something Clarke would have welcomed at full-time against Austria in March even given the bookings headache. Everyone would have taken it.

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Popular opinion presented Scotland as already toiling following the dropping of two points at home against a rival, although the sage Clarke predicted there would be twists and turns to come, as has proved the case.

Austria were thumped by both Denmark and Israel, who in turn were thumped by Denmark and Austria. Scotland sailed into this bay of opportunity with a 15-point haul from their last five games to set up this strange, last group game rendezvous with the Danes. It feel like a mix of cup final and testimonial.

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Fans in the sold-out crowd will be there to praise the team. Despite a plea to leave requests for a wave until after the game, Clarke will likely be urged to acknowledge supporters at some point during the 90 minutes. He won't be happy doing so unless the Scots are comfortably in front and well on the way to booking a home semi-final play-off draw, which is what is at stake this evening at Hampden.

Clarke is conscious of the need for Scotland to play the game in front of them. Although a draw may well be enough to secure a seeding place, he has set his players the target of winning and the suspension-threatened Robertson, McGinn and Gilmour, as well as Che Adams and Jack Hendry, are expected to be central to this task. He described it as “almost impossible” to manage a situation when so many are at risk of a ban.

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“You get to the point where you think, who are you protecting and how are you going to do it?" he said. "Over the course of a campaign you are going to pitch some (bookings) up.”

That was certainly the case against Israel at Hampden. An end-to-end, breathless encounter was always likely to produce casualties, and, in the case of McGinn, booked for a wild challenge on danger man Manor Solomon shortly after half-time, it might have been worse. A red card then would have severely reduced Scotland’s chances of staging a comeback.

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The Aston Villa midfielder posted another purposeful, strong-running performance against Moldova last week to draw more comment about his physical attributes, specifically in the bottom region. Like Kenny Dalglish, he has turned fending off opponents with his rear into an artform.

Clarke is indebted to someone who has scored four goals in qualifying and produced a latest assist for Patterson in Chisinau, while McGinn is clearly relishing life under the manager. This strong relationship that has developed between them is perhaps why Clarke is slightly troubled by this focus on, well, McGinn’s hefty backside. It was certainly unexpected to hear a Scotland manager wading into the body-shaming debate.

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“I think the comments about his body shape are a bit unkind, to be honest, as he’s a good player,” said Clarke. “He sets a good tempo for us.

“One of the things I learned quite quickly was that if you can use John as a more advanced midfield player rather than the deeper role, he gives you that opportunity to create a high press on the pitch. He does that very well.”

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McGinn enjoyed playing off Che Adams against Moldova as Clarke tweaked his system to allow a pair of strong runners, Stuart Armstrong was deployed on the other side, to support the centre forward. Denmark, who have won every game in the group so far and only conceded for the first time in their last outing against the Faroe Isles, will demand a different approach. Clarke is not expecting any favours, even with honorary Scot Morten Wieghorst assisting Denmark manager Kapser Hjulmand on the sidelines.

“They will want those 10 victories,” he said. “It’s a great way to go into any tournament and they’ll feel good about themselves if they can do that.

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“They’ll come here to a full house. Professional players like to play in front of big crowds in good atmospheres. I’m sure they will be bang at it.”

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