Yellow peril for Scotland? Ukraine don't lose many - a World Cup play-off to savour

Name the country who have never beaten Scotland at Hampden but who won their last game at Hampden?

Ukraine's players celebrate their victory over Bosnia with supporters after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualification football match in Zenica.
Ukraine's players celebrate their victory over Bosnia with supporters after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualification football match in Zenica.

It could be a quiz question. It’s certainly a puzzler for Steve Clarke, who will spend the next four months trying to devise a way to beat Ukraine. The yellow peril do not tend to come unstuck against opposition ranked lower than them.

This is what is going to have to happen if Scotland are to progress to a World Cup play-off final against either Wales or Austria.

Even though he was wary about considering the options in the final, Clarke can’t afford to be completely focused on beating Ukraine. Given the final is four days after the semi-final on March 24, the Scotland manager will have to do preparatory work on Wales and Austria too. Helpfully, he already has information on the latter, who Scotland played twice in qualifying.

One of Ukraine's star men is Manchester City's Oleksandr Zinchenko.

Scotland have not faced Wales since a grim 2-1 World Cup qualifying defeat at Hampden at the start of Gordon Strachan’s reign in 2013.

There is of course a storied context to a World Cup play-off clash involving Scotland and Wales but Clarke, while requiring to be prepared, cannot allow himself to be distracted by the prospect of such a mouth-watering potential contest.

It’s beat Ukraine or bust, something that is easier said than done. No one managed to get the better of Oleksandr Petrakov’s side in qualifying, including group winners France. Ukraine drew both games 1-1. As Clarke noted, they don’t lose a lot of games, but they don’t necessarily win many – only two in qualifying. Scotland, by contrast, won seven, albeit having played two more matches.

Petrakov took over midway through qualifying and after the side reached the quarter-finals of a major finals for the first time under Andriy Shevchenko, whose last game was the 4-0 defeat to England in Rome. Ukraine looked dead on their feet in that game, which came just four days after they defeated Sweden in extra-time in Glasgow with a last minute Artem Dovbyk winner.

Ukraine's head coach Olexandr Petrakov.

Some Scots were angered by how feeble Ukraine looked in Italy as they collapsed against England. Indeed, the margin of defeat could have been greater.

However, nobody in the Tartan Army would complain if they somehow proved to be as toothless again in March. But that does seem a forlorn hope. Manchester City’s left wing-back Oleksandr Zinchenko is every bit as good as Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, while Andriy Yarmolenko is in fine form for West Ham United.

“I will analyse them and look at their games because sometimes the most obvious players that maybe jump to mind for you are not the most dangerous players,” said Clarke. “It is better to go away and analyse their games properly and come up with an idea about how we might play a certain way to beat them.”

Clarke has put the onus on the home fans making life as uncomfortable as possible for the visitors and making capital from the advantage of being seeded.

Ukraine might have recent experience of Hampden Park but it was a very different Hampden to the one that will, virus permitting, await Ukraine in four months’ time. Only around 6,000 saw them beat Sweden in June.

“They won’t be too bothered about coming to Hampden,” said Clarke. “Maybe with the crowd it might make a difference.

“Anybody who has been at Hampden and when the Tartan Army has been in full voice know it is an intimidating place to be.”

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