Gordon Strachan readily acknowledged that his team’s last qualifying tie was “must-win”. The fact that this was achieved, with seconds to spare, in the home encounter with Slovenia two months ago, changes the dynamic for the visit by England to Glasgow on Saturday for the national manager.
“This one is ‘mustn’t get beaten’,” he said yesterday of the first Hampden encounter between the once-great rivals in almost 18 years. “As we sit here just now I’m thinking about victory, but ‘mustn’t get beaten’ keeps us in it. You never know, to be fair, with the rest of the scores and how they go.”
The success over the Slovenians is entitled to be clung to as a game-changer by Strachan for more than the three points. A haul that prevented the thread on which hopes of a World Cup play-off-earning second place from Group F fraying altogether. The composition of his team that night, in featuring six Celtic players, gave him a framework on which to build. All but James Forrest, on the bench towards the end of the season as Patrick Roberts took centre stage, have been in a playing/winning groove all the way up to last Saturday.
Strachan cannot say the same of other elements of his squad.
He will require to call on centre-backs Christophe Berra and Charlie Mulgrew despite both having completed their English Championship seasons almost a month ago. He acknowledges the “first 36 hours” of their preparations this week will be spent getting various players who have been ensconced in the English Championship up to speed – Slovenia scorer Chris Martin another – but the fact the Celtic five of Craig Gordon, Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong, Kieran Tierney and Leigh Griffiths are firmly in the groove provide him his starting point for team selection at Hampden, a ground where they have excelled for club and country this past six months. Indeed, he draws parallels with Celtic now and the core that existed in the Scotland sides he played in across the early 1980s that is exceedingly flattering to Brendan Rodgers’ men.
“Over that winter period, they [the Celtic players in the Scotland set-up] kicked on to something else as individuals and as a group and we took that into consideration. When you are picking a side or a squad it’s who is feeling good about themselves, who is at the top of their game, then you watch them in training and ask yourself what is the best way of doing this.
“West Brom were doing well and Matty Phillips would have been involved, but he’s been injured. It changes. People call for one player but over a two-month period it can change dramatically but these Celtic guys have grown and grown as the season has gone on and when you are on a run like that, you do feel really good about yourself and what you bring to the squad. It’s a bit like when Liverpool were winning everything and these guys came into our squad – [Graeme] Souness, [Kenny] Dalglish, [Alan] Hansen and [Stevie] Nicol, they brought that aura to the squad.”
The aura around England does not daunt Strachan. He draws hope from the 3-0 defeat at Wembley last November when “we stood up against them and never allowed them to play and do what they wanted to do”. Strachan said: “Craig Gordon didn’t have a real good save to make and I would take that again. To keep them down to three attempts on target… those goals were exceptional, especially the second and third ones. The first one was unfortunate as Grant Hanley was lying on the ground when the ball came in and it could have gone anywhere. The game wasn’t a problem until that point.
“When it went to 2-0 you just thought about the players. You thought ‘this is not right’ because of all the hard work they had done to make sure England wouldn’t have chances and then they score two goals with two headers.
“Our unit defending was good but it gets to a point where individual defending comes into it and you have to sort things out as an individual.
“That’s why Juventus are the best in the world at that. If it breaks down at any point they have they physical ability to stop people scoring goals.
“We created as many chances as England but the final pass makes a big difference. That’s up to us to improve. To relax at that point.”