It feels petty to take Gordon Strachan to task for anything when his side have earned 13 points from the 15 on offer in their last five matches. But even he might accept there’s a missing ingredient in this World Cup qualifying campaign to date.
For all Scotland’s undoubted improvement, for all their spirited performances, the latest of which was Thursday’s last-gasp win over Slovakia, what has eluded them so far is a truly notable, better-than-expected result.
This is what a win this evening would represent against a side yet to concede at home in the campaign. Victory here, especially given the last-ditch circumstances, would stand as that big, tenure-defining result. Every campaign needs one if ambitions to qualify are to be realised.
It just so happens that Scotland have left their biggest statement to the end – if it should come at all. The win over Slovakia four days ago was greeted with an enormous outpouring of emotion not only in view of its significance, but also because of the manner in which it arrived; a last-minute winner to maintain the country’s World Cup prospects tends to stir the soul.
But the truth is that any country harbouring hopes of qualifying for a major finals needs to win a home tie against one of their nearest challengers, particularly if they have already been thrashed by these same opponents in the away fixture. So a win over Slovakia would have been identified by Strachan at the start of the campaign as a likely prerequisite for success. Ultimately thrilling though it was, Scotland did what it was reasonable to expect them to do against Slovakia.
At the start of the campaign, before Scotland were held at home by Lithuania, Strachan would have treated a point away to Slovenia – currently 12 places below Scotland in the world rankings – as a good result. In normal circumstances it would be.
But these are far from normal circumstances. Scotland are 90 minutes away from a play-off appointment providing they win here tonight. Anything else is not an option in the bid to reach Russia.
Strachan last night agreed he would have taken this scenario were it offered last year, particularly given the slow start.
Somehow Strachan has kept the balls in the air, avoiding mishap in the three games Scotland have needed to win since lining up against Lithuania last month. He needs one more victory – his greatest one as Scotland manager.
“They are a big, big team,” warned Strachan last night. “Bigger than Slovakia, who are a big side. They are physically strong. They have played 4-4-2 from what we have been watching. People kind of pooh-pooh that [formation]. But you can play it as long as you have two strikers who can get about the park, work back, and you have four midfield players.
“Two teams will go through, well one (England) is already through,” added Strachan. “But with the other one going to the play-off I’m sure there will be another two saying they deserved that. I think it has been that close.”
Three teams into one place doesn’t go. Further complicating matters as far as Scotland are concerned is Slovenia’s own predicament. A visit yesterday to the team’s headquarters 20kms north-west of Ljubljana was instructive. This base might be skirted by the snow-tipped Julian Alps but there was little evidence of a team having shut down for the winter.
Manager Srecko Katanec has already announced he will be leaving at the end of the campaign – to focus on some “personal problems” he explained yesterday.
But the team are to gift Katanec with a farewell gift of a win and clean sheet if possible; the latter would mean Slovenia have negotiated an entire campaign without conceding a goal at their own stadium.
Katanec conceded this would be seriously impressive statistic and consolation for missing out on a play-off place, if indeed they do. While they are missing two influential midfielders in the shape of the suspended Valter Birsa and Rene Krhin, it’s in defence where they are clearly strongest; sadly for Scotland, this department is likely to remain intact after nearly frustrating England at Wembley last week.
Slovenia have lost only five goals in total in nine qualifying ties, two of which came in their opening game in Lithuania.
As skipper Bostjan Cesar stressed yesterday, they are not out of the qualifying equation quite yet.
“We are aware with a tough game against Scotland, but we want to finish the qualification group with a win,” he said. “Of course we want to win, firstly because it’s the last game in qualifying and also for the coach, because it will be his last match.
“We know we are in a very tough position in the group, but we want a victory.
“We believe we can finish second as long as the chance exists. But we must first beat Scotland and then hope for the best outcome in the Slovakia against Malta match.”
Slovenia require Slovakia to do the almost unthinkable and drop points at home to Malta. But so long as there is a “mathematical chance”, added Cesar, their blood will be pumping. Belgium’s thrilling 4-3 victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina last night protected this slim mathematical chance. Slovenia, providing they win tonight and Slovakia drop points against Malta, will have enough points to avoid being the group’s runners-up with the worst record.
The fierce-looking Cesar, whose marshalling of the Slovenia defence has been a significant factor in its impregnability, won’t want for motivation tonight, since he also becomes the first Slovenia player to reach the 100-cap milestone.
But far from everything is rosy in the Slovenia camp. Katanec wryly noted that those Slovenian journalists who have “spent the last year trying to undermine me” did not turn up yesterday at the sparsely attended press conference at the well-appointed training centre.
Katanec did confirm that should Slovenia somehow make it through to the play-offs, he would extend his second spell in charge of the international team. Otherwise tonight will be his last game. Whether it is Strachan’s last stand remains to be seen. It really is all to play for.