Steve Clarke has challenged Scotland to put in a flawless performance against the world’s top team to resurrect fading hopes of automatic qualification for Euro 2020.
This is a tall order against any team but particularly one of Belgium’s capabilities. Scotland have lost their last two matches against Roberto Martinez’s side by an aggregate score of 7-0. Clarke acknowledged the Scots need something very special against the No 1 ranked team to lift the mood and keep alive their chances of finishing second in Group I.
A defeat tonight combined with a win for Russia against Kazakhstan in Moscow would see the Scots lag nine points off second place with just four games remaining.
They haven’t been helped by the loss of two players who might otherwise have entered Clarke’s plans for tonight. Ryan Jack has returned to Rangers with a knee injury while Steven Naismith, a surprising inclusion in the squad in the first place due to a hamstring complaint having restricted him to just three appearances for Hearts this season, two as substitute, has also been ruled out.
“He [Jack] had a little bit of swelling on his knee on Friday and was prepared to sit on the bench,” reported Clarke. “But on Saturday morning there was a little bit more swelling and Rangers decided to go safety first. He has gone back.
“Naismith is close,” he added. “I could push him, but no, I wouldn’t do that to him. I could sit him on the bench but I don’t think I would use him from the bench as I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
His options are reduced but Clarke still anticipated making changes, as much due to the tight turnaround as anything else.
“With such a short space between the games you are always going to get one or two little knocks – one or two boys a little bit tired,” he said. “I think I made five changes in Brussels [in June]. Two of them were enforced because Andy [Robertson] was out and Ryan Fraser didn’t think he could play 90 minutes. Maybe a similar situation tomorrow, maybe a little bit less.”
Whoever plays – Ryan Christie coming in to start in the No 10 position is one likely change, with Robert Snodgrass also set to return – will need to deliver something very rare: the near-perfect performance.
Asked if he thought Scotland can gain at least the point he says is required to maintain their interest in the group, Clarke replied: “Yes – going by what I saw in June and if we defend well and everyone plays at their best. Listen, as a team you are going to have to play a game with almost no mistakes because the top players and the top teams punish you if you make a mistake. So can we play a game with no mistakes?”
He let that question hang in the air. On the evidence of recent times, there’s scant reason to believe Scotland can.
But while admitting the mood in the camp was still flat as recently as yesterday morning following Friday’s 2-1 defeat by Russia, Clarke reported spirits have improved after a strong
training session where the frustrations were flushed out of the system.