Why Scotland must look beyond Ukraine to Armenia and the echoes of Albania in 2018
Normally after deflating results that signify the end of a road, in this case the one to Qatar, it is customary to ask: where do Scotland go from here?
That question is a very simple one to answer on this occasion. They head back to Hampden Park next Wednesday night for a game against Armenia that, right now, many cannot see far enough. The players will likely fall into this camp too.
Let's hope the collective hangover following such a bitterly disappointing defeat to Ukraine is of the Andy Robertson variety. Quick to clear.
We will never know what might have happened had the play-off semi-final, rightly delayed due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, been played when originally scheduled in March.
Nathan Patterson may well have been able to play though match fitness might still have been an issue. More significantly, Kieran Tierney, who it’s been proved time and time again is such an important cog in Steve Clarke’s favoured system, would likely have been available.
Even then, there is no guarantee Scotland would have overcome a clearly talented Ukraine team. Defeat, though, might have been easier to stomach in the Spring. The Scotland players would have dispersed back to their clubs after a meaningless friendly against Austria. Life would have gone on. Domestic issues would quickly dominate the agenda again. Semi-finals, finals. Relegation, promotion. It would not have stung so much.
It feels like a form of torture to be locked inside an international window while trying to cope with the realisation that it will be 2026 at the very least until Scotland appear at another World Cup. That’s a gap of almost 30 years. A couple of generations. Those who attended the Morocco game in St Etienne in 1998 while young, free and single could easily be grandparents now.
The next World Cup is being held in Mexico, Canada and the United States. The number of competing teams has been increased to 48, with Europe handed three extra qualifying spots. Whether Clarke will still be around to make up for his exclusion from the squad for Italia '90 in his playing days – he was included in the original pool – remains to be seen. His current contract extends only to the end of qualifying for Euro 2024.
Whether he likes it or not, the focus has returned to the manager in the aftermath of such a comprehensive defeat to Ukraine. As much as Scotland’s improvement under Clarke is undeniable, Wednesday was the third time in just 12 months that his side have been well beaten on a big occasion at Hampden.
All three games might have been against quality opposition, but they are the type of teams who Scotland need to overcome to make an impact at international level. Czech Republic, Croatia and Ukraine are all ranked higher than Scotland. However, they should not have been allowed to pick off the hosts as easily as they did.
Clarke will have regrets. As against Czech Republic, when he sent on Lyndon Dykes for Ryan Christie with Scotland trailing by a goal, he felt compelled to change things at half-time against Ukraine. This time the switch was reversed – Christie for Dykes. Goals were lost shortly after the interval on both occasions.
He opted for two strikers against Croatia in the last, must-win group fixture and the Scots were never in it.
He did the same on Wednesday – Dykes and Che Adams again – and the game ran away from the hosts once more. There is much for Clarke to ponder in the coming days. The next games in Scotland’s summer programme are against lower quality opponents. A trip to Dublin to face Republic of Ireland is bookended by home and away clashes with Armenia.
There is the prospect of players developing niggles and dropping out. The scrutiny on those such as Andy Robertson and Scott McTominay, the property of Liverpool and Manchester United respectively, will be intense.
Everyone will require some time to process this latest disappointment. A promising campaign that finished on such a high against Denmark unravelled in 90 minutes – or around 48 minutes in truth.
Ukraine’s second goal at Hampden was the ultimate buzzkill. Scotland did show signs of life in the last half an hour and might well have forced extra-time at least had John McGinn not somehow managed to skew his header wide when it seemed easier to score.
Callum McGregor’s goal with 11 minutes left brought Hampden to life. But Ukraine still looked just as likely to score as Scotland and the visitors did help themselves to another goal with the game's last kick.
The Ukraine tie has dominated the national side’s calendar for the past six months. The play-off draw was made as long ago as November. It’s been difficult to look beyond a match on which so much hinged. But now we must. We must.
The format for Euro 2024 is not yet confirmed. Information detailing how teams might earn play-off spots from the 2022/23 Nations League is still to be announced. Uefa are expected to provide further details in the coming days.
But Scotland are already aware of its possibilities. Last summer’s Euro 2020 adventures were on the back of finishing top of Group C in the inaugural edition of the Nations League. The upcoming games might seem like a chore, but they need to be treated the same as qualifiers. Because that, effectively, is what they are.
Who now remembers a 2-0 win at Hampden Park against Albania in September 2018? Only 17,500 turned up to watch what proved an important stepping stone on the way to Scotland’s first major finals for 23 years.
Next Wednesday’s meeting with Armenia could provide a similar springboard before an always competitive fixture in Dublin against Stephen Kenny’s Republic of Ireland three days later.
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