It took only 90 minutes for some to give up on Scotland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2020, but Stuart Armstrong believes the next hour and a half of action could go a long way to proving those doubters right or wrong.
A dismal defeat in Kazakhstan back in March got the Scots off to the worst possible start in their latest quest to make the finals of a major tournament, with the 3-0 loss also sounding the death knell for Alex McLeish’s ill-fated reign.
However, with Steve Clarke now at the helm, Armstrong baulks at any suggestions that, with only six points from a possible 12 and Kazakhstan, Russia and leaders Belgium above them in Group I, the nation’s hopes have been dashed already.
The former Celtic and Dundee United midfielder, who weekly has to defy the odds with club side Southampton, is convinced the positivity within Clarke’s squad is not misguided. Yet, with Russia three points ahead and currently occupying the key runners-up spot, the 27-year-old acknowledges the significance of Friday’s encounter with last year’s World Cup hosts before the Belgians visit Hampden on Monday.
“Yeah definitely,” responded Armstrong defiantly when asked if it was wrong to suggest the campaign was over already. “I think it’s a pretty defeatist attitude to be thinking like that.
“Certainly, that’s not the feeling within the group. We are all quite positive and the team is quite strong. We have all played with each other before and know each other so there is a good atmosphere.
“I don’t think you can put a number on the points we’ll need. I think we need to, obviously, aim as high as possible. It also has to be focused on one game at a time and not dwelling on the two games as a package.
“We have to just look at Friday first and foremost and make sure we put on a good performance and give ourselves the best chance of getting something out of it.
“Undeniably, they [Russia] are going to be a big part of the campaign and we are under no illusions that they won’t be. So, I think a good performance and result against them will put us in the best position to get what we want out of it.”
Armstrong made what was described by Gordon Strachan, the national manager of the time, as “the best Scotland debut I have ever seen” when he earned the first of his 15 caps in the 1-0 win against Slovenia in March 2017. In those days, Scott Brown, James McArthur and James Morrison anchored the midfield, but have since been replaced by fresher faces.
With players such as himself, John McGinn, Scott McTominay and Kenny McLean all playing in the English Premier League and Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie performing well each week for Celtic, Armstrong says it is an area of strength for Scotland. The competition for places is fierce but a positive. “I think we have six or seven central midfield players who are all very good in their own right and all performing really well at club level,” he added. “I feel it is a part of the pitch we are very strong in at the moment.
“I don’t think it should ever be the case that you are guaranteed a game when you come away with Scotland. It is the selection of the best of the country and a lot of people have been performing well at the start of the season and last season too. There is always going to be competition here and that’s the way it should be.”