Ukraine yellow peril back at Hampden but world has moved on: "Game didn't suit us, it suited them.."

The last time Scotland faced Ukraine it felt as if most of the rest of the world was lining up against Steve Clarke’s side.

Nathan Patterson (R) and Greg Taylor (L) train in Edinburgh before the Nations League clash with Ukraine at Hampden  (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Nathan Patterson (R) and Greg Taylor (L) train in Edinburgh before the Nations League clash with Ukraine at Hampden (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Complaining was not at option because it would have sounded so heartless. Scotland then went out and played the role of patsies to near perfection.

As hard as it is to believe given the way the world’s news agenda has moved on, it is only 112 days since Ukraine extinguished Scotland's World Cup ambitions amid global attention on a summer’s night in the south side of Glasgow. Interest was widespread because it was the first international fixture Ukraine had played since the military invasion by Russia.

Oleksandr Petrakov’s side demonstrated their class despite many players having not played for several months. The conflict is ongoing and reports remain utterly harrowing from the front line and beyond. Somehow, however, league football has resumed in the country.

Ukraine train back at Hampden, where they won 3-1 in June in a World Cup semi-final play off (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

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Ukraine’s leading club Shakhtar Donetsk played Celtic as recently as last week in the Champions League. Football is trying its best to exist as normal in the war-stricken country. Now Ukraine are back in the guise of an awkward squad bidding to wreck Scotland’s hopes of securing a Euro 2024 play-off spot before regular qualifying begins next year.

Eight of their starting XI on that emotional night at the beginning of June are in the frame to start this evening, although they are without skipper and so often their inspiration Oleksandr Zinchenko, who picked up an injury playing for new club Arsenal.

Nevertheless, they remain very much the same yellow peril that derailed Scotland’s World Cup ambitions and cast a shadow over the rest of an uninspired international break when Clarke found himself under real pressure, perhaps for the first time in his reign.

Clarke couldn’t make a great deal of it before or after the last meeting. Now some time has passed and Scotland and Ukraine know they aren’t going to the World Cup, the manager feels able to offer a more genuine assessment of the situation surrounding the last meeting, which Uefa evidentually decreed should be put back to June from March.

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The original date couldn’t possibly have been kept but there was talk of giving Scotland a bye to the play-off final with Ukraine in such disarray. Some even ventured to suggest Scotland should scratch from the play-off and abandon their World Cup dream. In short, it was a challenging context in which to play such an important match.

“The last game was a really unique situation where nobody knew what to expect,” said Clarke. “Everybody says how good Ukraine are, they are a really good side. I don’t think they caught us cold, but it was a unique game.

“It was a game that didn’t suit us, it suited them. We didn’t play as well as we can play. The only thing we can do to address that is play better. And if we play better this time and Ukraine play to their level, then let’s see what the outcome is.”

One of the main reasons for Scotland’s prospect appearing brighter on this occasion is the form of Nathan Patterson. At the time of the last meeting with Ukraine, the Everton full back had played just once for the Goodison side since transferring from Rangers in January. Although in the squad, Clarke didn’t feel he was able to include him in such a high-octane fixture.

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The 20-year-old has since established himself in the Everton first team and is relishing life on Merseyside and in the Premier League. He looks set to have a long career in England, just like his Scotland manager, also a former full back, enjoyed.

Clarke can see the similarities – in attitude as much as anything else. He is simply glad he isn’t following his path to the extent of winning only a smattering of international caps. Patterson already has four more than Clarke’s total of six and the manager will be happy to award him many more.

“He is a good character,” said Clarke. “Since I got him into the squad I have always liked his character, I like the way he conducts himself. I like his attitude towards football. It reminds me of somebody not sitting too far away from here…

“He plays right wing-back for us. He plays right-back for Everton. I am sure if I asked Nathan to play right centre-back he could do that as well. I am sure if I asked him to play central midfield, he could do that. You know why? He is a good player.”

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Another good, young player who has not had his troubles to seek is Billy Gilmour, although Clarke is not about to start bringing out the violins for someone who’s just featured in a multi-million pounds transfer. The problem is that the manager who signed him, Graham Potter, almost immediately moved to the club Gilmour had just left, and where he might ideally have stayed.

But now he’s at Brighton rather than Chelsea and about to start playing for a new manager in Roberto De Zerbi, who left Shakhtar Donetsk in the summer. “He (Gilmour) is happy with his decision,” said Clarke. “He has bought a house on the south coast. He has a great life. I don’t feel too sorry for him!”

Clarke has no qualms about pitching Gilmour into the fray this evening despite him having only played a minute of competitive football this season. He revealed he had played one half of a closed doors game against Chelsea last weekend.

“I always feel that as long as they have worked properly at their clubs and done everything they have been asked to do at training, they have the first game,” he explained, with reference to Scotland’s punishing schedule of three games within seven days. "After that they might be tired in the second game or the third game. But the first game, they’ve got.”

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