Scotland have scored just five times in four matches, which is a significant part of the reason why the group campaign has already been rendered moribund prior to these matches against Russia and San Marino. Who can the manager drum up to try and score goals this time?
Oli Burke – who scored the winner in Clarke’s first game against Cyprus – has only just made his debut for Alaves, coming on for the last seven minutes of their 2-0 win over Real Mallorca at the weekend after signing on loan from West Bromwich Albion in the last transfer window.
Likewise, If Leigh Griffiths wasn’t ready five weeks ago, he isn’t going to be ready now. He has not played a minute of first-team football since Clarke named his squad for the last double header, against Russia and Belgium. The manager explained the Celtic striker was being left him out “for his own good”. Griffiths has either been an unused sub or absent entirely in the interim. He missed Saturday’s 1-1 draw at former club Hibs due to a virus.
With the benefit of hindsight, it was a mistake to include Steven Naismith in the last squad since the Hearts striker was only just returning from a hamstring injury. A nine-minute cameo against Hamilton Accies at the end of August was the last time he featured.
Clarke will be conscious of the unsatisfying situation where he had to send Naismith back to his club when it became clear he would not be fit enough for even the second of the two matches.
Hearts won’t countenance Naismith joining up again before proving his fitness at club level. Not given their current injury plight. Naismith will now have to wait a while longer to win his 50th cap, a landmark which has been a long time coming. He earned his 49th cap nearly a year ago, in the 3-1 friendly defeat by Portugal.
All of which means there’s the usual anguish about who can supply the firepower when the Scots resume action in Moscow a week on Thursday.
There was the same worry prior to the last double-header. John McGinnn was the man who got Scotland’s only goal – against Russia, after ten minutes. After that promising start, Scotland lost six unanswered goals across the two games to leave even Clarke accepting the remaining games in the group are for trying to gain some momentum. Others argue it’s also the time try out some new, maybe left-field options.
The first assignment is what, for some, might be an unappealing four-hour flight away at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, the second, against San Marino, in front of what could be one of Hampden’s lowest ever crowds for a competitive international match.
It seems reasonable to suggest throwing in some untried, in-form players, as fans and pundits alike have been calling for in the last few days.
Someone like a player currently scoring for fun. One who has grabbed 15 goals in his last 12 matches, including two hat-tricks, the latest of them coming this weekend v Morton. Lawrence Shankland’s goalscoring return for Dundee United has seen more than one Premiership club rue their failure to invest in him this summer.
One of the first questions Clarke will be asked at Hampden later today will involve the player, since the manager has not bowed to pressure to include the man-of-the-moment. People will want to know if he was considered and if playing in a lower division counted against him.
It didn’t for the scorer of Scotland’s last goal. McGinn earned his first cap against Denmark in 2016 when his then club, Hibs, were in the Championship. Going back a bit further, to 2012, Ian Black earned his first cap when Rangers were in the lowest tier.
There is then precedence. And neither McGinn nor Black were earning headlines in quite the way Shankland is doing. A striker’s worth is measured by goals. When they are in the groove, they feel every shot, every header has a chance of going in – be it against Morton’s admittedly limited back line or Russia. If the step up is considered too great against Russia, then surely San Marino, whose defence probably compares with those Shankland comes up against in the Championship, would not be beyond him.
Of course, Clarke’s only just in the door. He won’t want to delve down to the lower tiers quite yet as he seeks to provide the strikers he does have at his disposal with some reassurance.
Oli McBurnie did not do so badly against Russia, when Scotland’s trials were put down to their inability to provide him with any support. Matt Phillips suffered the same way when he stepped into the lone striker role against Belgium.
There’s also the fear calling up Shankland would jinx him. Clarke turned to Eamonn Brophy for his first two games when he faced the same striker dilemma. The Kilmarnock striker did well enough against Cyprus but has scored only twice for his club since.