Scotland team v Northern Ireland: Lewis Ferguson long overdue start among three changes - predicted XI

Rangers defender deserves chance but will Lawrence Shankland drop out?

Just 79 days will stand between Scotland and their Euro 2024 opener against hosts Germany following the conclusion of Tuesday's friendly against Northern Ireland at Hampden Park. Or perhaps a more significant measure, just two more warm-up matches will remain for Steve Clarke's men to fine tune their preparations for the all-important Group A opener in the Allianz Arena on June 14.

Time is rapidly running out for Scotland to iron out the creases that have been evident across the last six matches which have failed to produce a win and resulted in the loss of 18 goals. An important caveat is that the four defeats suffered during that run were to nations ranked inside the top 10 of the Fifa world rankings – England, Spain, France and Netherlands – with three of those matches being friendlies which were arranged with the purpose of testing Scotland against the very best. In competitive matches, Scotland still boast an impressive record having lost just once during a strong Euro 2024 qualifying campaign that saw them progress to the finals as group runners-up behind Spain.

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But for all the positives that came out of the performance against the Netherlands in Amsterdam on Friday, the late collapse and final outcome of a sobering 4-0 defeat has allowed further concerns to creep in. Not only over the amount of goals being shipped, but also the failure to score when on top – two flaws that will fatally undermine any attempt to go beyond the group stages of the Euros for the first time.

Scotland's Lewis Ferguson appeared as a substitute in the 4-0 defeat to Netherlands. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)Scotland's Lewis Ferguson appeared as a substitute in the 4-0 defeat to Netherlands. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Scotland's Lewis Ferguson appeared as a substitute in the 4-0 defeat to Netherlands. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

It has ensured that a great deal of emphasis will be placed on both the performance and the result against a Northern Irish side whose only two wins in their last 12 outings came against San Marino. Michael O'Neill, in his second spell in charge, is overseeing a rebuild of the national side with a focus on breeding up and coming youngsters such as Rangers winger Ross McCausland and Liverpool full-back Conor Bradley.

For Scotland and Clarke, however, the time for experimenting is nearly over. Tuesday's match arguably being the last opportunity to try something different with the matches against Gibraltar and Finland in the two weeks before the tournament in June surely the time where the head coach will need to nail down his strongest XI ahead of facing the Germans.

It could then be the last chance for Clarke to give Lewis Ferguson his long overdue first Hampden start. The Bologna captain has been on fire in Serie A this season contributing six goals and four assists and playing almost every minute of every match as his side chase a Champions League spot. The 24-year-old, who is valued by his club around the £20m mark amid reported interest from the likes of Juventus and Napoli, has been included in a Scotland matchday squad 23 times but has won just 10 caps. Only two of those coming from the start, both away, to Austria and France.

Ferguson was introduced from the bench with 20 minutes remaining in Amsterdam on Friday and slotted into the position occupied by the exceptional Billy Gilmour at the base of the midfield. It did not go well as Scotland lost three goals in the remaining time to turn a performance full of optimism into one that has raised questions. To pin the blame on Ferguson and the rest of the subs who came on would be unfair given Scotland should have been at worst level, or even ahead in the match before they were brought on.

John Souttar deserves a chance to start for Scotland against Northern Ireland. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)John Souttar deserves a chance to start for Scotland against Northern Ireland. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)
John Souttar deserves a chance to start for Scotland against Northern Ireland. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

Ferguson has been most often utilised by his club as an attacking midfielder and it is where we have yet to see him given a proper chance in the international arena. It is also a position that is arguably up for grabs.

While Ryan Christie played well on Friday, and was unlucky not to score with a first-half header that was brilliantly tipped onto the bar by Mark Flekken, he has now gone 32 international matches without a goal from open play, his only strike in that period coming from the penalty spot against Republic of Ireland in September 2022. Is that enough for a number 10? Of course, Christie brings much more than just goals, his work-rate and pressing is phenomenal while he can be relied upon to keep possession in tight spaces, but Ferguson has shown in one of the top leagues in Europe that he can be a real threat as an attacking midfielder and for a Scotland side badly in need of goals, it would be remiss of Clarke not to give Ferguson the chance against Northern Ireland to show that he can provide a much-needed spark in the final third.

John Souttar was another who came off the bench and struggled against the Dutch, with the right-footed centre-back looking uncomfortable on the left of the back three after replacing Kieran Tierney. Based on his performances for Rangers this season, he deserves another chance to stake a claim. Ryan Porteous was impressive against the Dutch, as he has been in a Scotland jersey since making his debut 18 months ago, but Clarke needs to have a look at an alternative for his position, just in case, and Souttar would be the one who could slot in against Northern Ireland.

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It will be interesting to see whether Clarke sticks with Lawrence Shankland up front. The Hearts striker soured what was an otherwise encouraging display by failing to convert his big chance. But there was enough in his overall play to suggest that he may get another chance, but with Che Adams in good goalscoring form in the English Championship, it would be no surprise to see the Southampton striker back in from the start.

My Scotland XI to face Northern Ireland: Gunn; Patterson, Souttar, Hendry, Tierney, Robertson; Gilmour, McTominay, McGinn, Ferguson; Adams.



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