Scotland’s World Cup hopes could be snuffed out if they fail to overcome Slovakia in their penultimate qualifying clash.
Here, Andy Newport takes a look at some of the big talking points ahead of Thursday’s Hampden showdown.
WHO WILL PROVIDE SCOTLAND’S SPARK IN SCOTT BROWN’S ABSENCE?
Scott Brown’s return to the international fold has coincided with the Scots’ Group F fightback. He missed the national side’s opening three games after deciding to retire from international action but - since reversing that call ahead of November’s trip to Wembley - Gordon Strachan’s side have taken 10 points from a possible 15. A hamstring injury, however, means Scotland will have to play their final two matches of the group without their captain - leaving Strachan with a major decision as he weighs up who to play instead. Celtic’s Callum McGregor and Hibernian counterpart John McGinn would provide youthful exuberance but the boss may yet turned to Stoke veteran Darren Fletcher or Barry Bannan of Sheffield Wednesday if he decides experience is the vital ingredient required to see off the Slovakians.
McGREGOR’S BIG CHANCE?
Strachan finally gave in to public demands to call-up the Parkhead playmaker on Sunday night. Injuries to his club-mates Brown and Stuart Armstrong may have made his late invite a necessity but there is little doubt the 24-year-old fully deserves his slot having performed so magnificently for Brendan Rodgers’ rampant Hoops this term. He now has six goals this season after netting a classy double against Hibs on Saturday and looks to be the natural replacement for Armstrong, whose ability to break forward from midfield will be a big miss as the Scots look to open up their opponents. But McGregor’s surging confidence means if he does get the nod he is likely to have little trouble fitting into Strachan’s line-up.
WILL HAMPDEN ROAR?
Just under 45,000 tickets have been sold for Scotland’s final home match of the campaign - meaning Strachan’s team face the prospect of running out for their biggest game in years with 7,000 seats unoccupied. Sections of the Tartan Army have criticised both the ticket pricing and scheduling of the such a vital match and that will frustrate the national team boss and his players, who would have been counting on a passionate atmosphere to help propel them to the play-offs. However, the Scots showed last time out against Malta - when Hampden sat half-empty - they were able to generate their own tempo and Strachan will hope his men make the kind of positive start that will get the supporters, who do turn up, off their seats.
STICK OR TWIST FOR SLOVAKIA?
While the Scots have it in their own hands to claim second spot, Slovakia know a draw or better in Glasgow will likely leave them in the driving seat ahead of their final game against Malta. Boss Jan Kozak has already proved he knows how to set up his team to frustrate opponents after managing to hold England at bay during their 0-0 Euro 2016 stalemate. If he again goes with those ultra-defensive tactics, it could end up being an exasperating night for Scotland. However, having swiped Strachan’s team aside 3-0 when they met in Trnava 12 months ago, the Slovakians may yet decide the best form of defence is attack.