Victory in Vienna. It even has a pleasing ring to it. It is nice to think there might even be some Tartan Army members present for what Clarke believes could be a defining night in Scotland’s World Cup campaign.
The last time Scotland managed to beat a side ranked above them on their turf in a regular qualifying campaign was June 2013. Even then, the 1-0 win over Croatia, at the time ranked fourth in the world, was not as significant as it could have been because Scotland were already out of the running for Brazil 2014 after – oh dear – drawing their opening two fixtures.
Last year’s victory against Czech Republic, while welcome, was a Nations League fixture and again warranted an asterisk – after all, the hosts were forced to field a shadow XI following an outbreak of Covid-19 within the ranks. To locate a win that mattered, and even then, in typical Scotland fashion, it didn’t really amount for much in the end, one has to burrow all the way back to a victory in the Autumn in another beautiful European City. Enough time has passed since Paris in 2007 for James McFadden to get very comfortable in a pundit’s chair.
Scotland are in need of an overdue statement result to re-ignite their bid to qualify for Qatar 2022. Beating Austria in Vienna would certainly count as that. They actually have an earlier opportunity to beat a higher ranked team away from home before the Austria assignment but a win over Denmark is beginning to look an even taller order.
Kasper Hjulmand’s side have demonstrated why they are top seeds after a straightforward win in Israel followed by an emphatic victory over Moldova. The Scots head to Copenhagen on September 1 and anything secured then will be a bonus. They then host the Moldovans before a pivotal meeting with Austria. Although the venue has yet to be confirmed, it looks certain to be at the Ernst Happel stadium. Whether supporters will be allowed access will be a decision taken even later.
“Four points from Israel and Austria would put us in a very strong position and that’s exactly what we’ll look to achieve,” said Clarke. “But people have to remember this team of ours is still growing. The more experience the players get the better they’ll be.
“The next round of World Cup matches is still five months away from now and we can do a lot more growing over that time. We’ll have at least three matches to play in the Euros and hopefully maybe even more.”
Even after that, Scotland will still have four fixtures left. It’s why expecting Clarke to judge the worth of the point earned in Tel Aviv was futile. It is far too early to tell.
Scotland might be sitting third just now after another slow start to a campaign. But with Austria hosting Denmark at the same time as they are playing the Faroes tomorrow, something has to give. An away win for the in-form Danes would mean Scotland are on the dance floor in second place, a hopefully handsome victory over the Faroe Islands permitting.
This would hand some renewed purpose to Scotland before they then break away to concentrate on their Euro 2020 commitments. Clarke cannot be expected to be among those throwing up his hands in horror and writing off the campaign after only two matches. It could be a different Scotland that emerges after the Euros in any case.
The team could still be on a high after qualifying for the knockout stages of a major tournament for the first time. Some more new names might have been introduced to the team.
Che Adams could have taken firm possession of the number nine shirt by then. He has certainly looked capable enough in his first two outings. Clarke may have decided to revert to 4-2-3-1, the formation which seemed to lead to an uplift in fortunes in the second half in Tel Aviv. It might mean having to engage with the Kieran Tierney-Andy Robertson issue again.
Much can change. Five months is a long time. This has been underlined by the shift in mood around the Scotland camp since the high of Belgrade in November. Scotland have failed to win any of their matches since.
Clarke will expect some ridicule to greet his proclamation that Scotland can turn things around by winning against Austria while also making sure they beat Israel in the return fixture. It’s a bold prediction from a normally arch pragmatist. Victories in both fixtures, while not guaranteeing second place, would at least undo some of the damage caused by dropping four points in the opening two outings. Clarke is even hopeful of securing a result in Copenhagen.
“This team will grow again before we return to the World Cup campaign and that could be hugely significant in terms of our development,” he said. “There has to come a moment in time where we believe we are good enough to go and take points from the Pot 1 teams and hopefully that’s going to be the case in this campaign.
“I believe the players are good enough to do that already but they have to believe more in themselves. If they grow more over the next few months and prove to themselves what they can do at the Euros then we might be in a very different place when the World Cup qualifiers come back around.”