It was the backstop Scotland hoped to avoid but, deep down, probably always knew they would have to rely on.
With any lingering hope of automatic qualification for Euro 2020 effectively erased by Monday night’s 4-0 Hampden humbling at the hands of Belgium, it will all come down to what captain Andrew Robertson describes as the “biggest two games” he and his Scotland team-mates will ever have faced in their international careers.
A place in the Euro 2020 play-offs next March was guaranteed when the Scots won their inaugural Uefa Nations League group last year. It all seemed very distant and complicated at the time but is now coming into the sharpest of focus for Robertson.
Who Scotland face in the play-offs will depend on which nations reach the finals via the traditional qualifying groups.
As it stands, Steve Clarke’s squad will face either Bulgaria or Israel in the single-leg knockout semi-final at Hampden on 26 March. If they win that match, Scotland would then face Norway or Serbia in the single-leg final on 31 March which will be played at a venue to be determined by a Uefa draw.
“We worked hard to get that carrot of the play-offs, it wasn’t just handed to us on a plate,” said Robertson. “We have put ourselves in that position. We wanted to qualify by finishing second in our group but unfortunately that isn’t going to happen now. We knew that if it didn’t, then we still had the play-off to fall back on.”
Scotland’s remaining four Group I fixtures, starting against Russia in Moscow next month, now take on the form of a crucial warm-up programme in which Clarke will try to engender some positivity and momentum to take into the play-offs.
Robertson doesn’t care to contemplate the prospect of Scotland’s absence from a major tournament finals next summer for which Hampden is one of the host stadia. The Liverpool left-back is looking to the example set by Russia who only played preparatory fixtures from October 2017 until hosting the World Cup Finals in 2018 where the backing of their own fans helped them reach the quarter-finals.
“We will all put everything into the next four Group I matches because they are what we have to prepare for the biggest two games we will have played for Scotland so far when the play-offs come around,” added Robertson.
“That has to be a motivation. The manager will be looking at what he can change, what he can do with the formation and and if you turn your back on that, you are going to be the one who misses out.
“The next four games are so important to get us right for March because there are no second chances after that. We need to be firing. Hopefully with a good couple of results behind us, we have a bit more momentum, a bit more belief, and we can go into those play-off games firing.
“Maybe a team you could look at for inspiration are Russia. When they were hosting the World Cup, they had six friendlies while all of us were battling it out to get there. The improvement they had was frightening. They got to the quarter-finals of the World Cup when maybe even people in Russia weren’t expecting them to do anything. They used that time to get their best team, their best formula. Maybe we can take a leaf out of their book and the manager can get his best team, what the best way to play is.
“It’s win or bust for us in March, we either go to the Euros or we don’t. I can’t speak for the other lads but the next four games this year are huge in terms of how Scotland are going to go. I am sure the squad will show up and put 100 per cent in, like we have done during this round of internationals. We just haven’t shown it on the pitch. Hopefully we can get some positive results and build momentum going into March.
“I want this team to get to a big tournament, simple as that. A lot of people before me have come and stood here and not been able to manage it. We believe we have a squad good enough to do it and I believe we showed it in glimpses against Belgium.
“But we were playing against a world-class team, unfortunately. In March, we won’t be playing against world-class teams in the play-offs. We will be playing against a similar standard of team to ourselves.
“So we need to be 100 per cent, we need to create and we need to keep clean sheets. If we can do that, we will be at the Euros next summer.”