Why Scotland should not hit panic button yet despite flat display against Gibraltar in Euros friendly

Winless run came to an end and a more telling challenge comes against Finland

They barely lingered long enough to get a tan but Scotland's pre-Euro 2024 trip to the Algarve was mission accomplished in one sense. When asked whether he had got what he had wanted from an assignment that some had declared was a pointless exercise, manager Steve Clarke did not hesitate.

Yes, he had, he answered, as he stood by a press conference room window warmed by the last rays of a dipping Algarve sun. “It has been a long time,” he added, truthfully.

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He was referring to a victory, of course, something that his experimental side had achieved a little earlier courtesy of a 2-0 victory over the very moderate Gibraltar.

Players of Scotland drink water at the cool break during the friendly against Gibraltar.Players of Scotland drink water at the cool break during the friendly against Gibraltar.
Players of Scotland drink water at the cool break during the friendly against Gibraltar.

It was a slim ambition when one considers that the opposition are the second worst team in Europe according to Fifa rankings and Scotland put six past them in successive meetings nine years ago.

It was also a long way to come, with much store having been placed by Clarke in keeping Scotland in the heart of the country during preparations for Euro 2024.

Still, Scotland had won a game of football. And that’s not something that has happened since September, and another warm night on a far fringe of Europe. A 3-0 win over Cyprus put Clarke’s side within touching distance of Euro 2024. It was a fifth win in succession, including against Spain on a memorable night at Hampden and away to Norway in Oslo. It felt like Scotland might never lose again. Now the fear is that Clarke’s side peaked in the middle of last year, about 12 months too early.

As John McGinn curled in a third in Larnaca before the half hour mark to all but seal victory that night against Temuri Ketsbaia’s team, few could have believed that it would be so long before they again tasted that winning feeling. A first win of the year must always be celebrated but one might prefer it came before June. Still, England only got their first one last night as well. It happens.

Ross McCrorie made his Scotland debut against Gibraltar.Ross McCrorie made his Scotland debut against Gibraltar.
Ross McCrorie made his Scotland debut against Gibraltar.

Some pessimistic Tartan Army members are fretting that it might be the only Scotland victory gained this year. A run of tough League A Nation League fixtures follow three Euro 2024 group games against Germany, Switzerland and Hungary. There is of course another friendly to come on Friday night against Finland, when Scotland will aim to feed off the good vibes of over 40,000 fans in attendance as they are sent on their way to Germany. It will certainly seem a lot different to playing Gibraltar in the Algarve in front of a sub 1000 crowd.

Perhaps only four of Clarke’s team last night are likely to start next Friday in Munich – Andy Robertson, Ryan Porteous, Billy Gilmour and McGinn. The less than sparkling display needs to be placed in some perspective.

Others gained valuable playing time, including Grant Hanley. He was restricted to the opening 45 minutes but it was always the manager’s plan to take him off at half time. Not part of the plan was Liam Cooper, his replacement, limping off before the end. His involvement in Germany is now in doubt. At least Hanley looks to be there or thereabouts.

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“He is a player that I brought back into the squad and he has done great for us, up until his injury,” said Clarke. “He has had a rough season at his club but it is nice to have him back.”

Hanley did look slightly heavy legged and while he might be one of Clarke’s favourites, it's pushing it to imagine him starting against Germany in just ten days’ time.

Che Adams, meanwhile, scored his first since netting away to Amenia two years ago and now looks certain to fill the striker's slot in the opener next week. Oddly, he might have played his way out of contention against Finland. Clarke simply can’t afford for the Southampton striker to be injured. That applies to a few others too, including Scott McTominay, who watched from the stand against Gibraltar, and McGinn.

Another plus point from the trip to southern Portugal was Ross McCrorie’s comfortable debut at right back. Granted, he was not tested in a defensive sense, but it was essential that he was allowed to find his feet at international level after his sudden promotion to the squad and illness struggles at Bristol City since his move south from Aberdeen. He is an injury to Anthony Ralston away from starting in Germany.

“He was good,” reflected Clarke. “It was his debut for Scotland and you never forget that. A winning debut. I thought he acquitted himself quite well, he was up and down the line and he was always available for the ball.

“One or two crosses could have been a little bit better but he’s not the only one on the pitch you can say that about," he added. "I thought he was good. I was really pleased for him because he has had a really rough time since he went down to Bristol.

“To work as hard as he did to get back to where he is, and to be here with us, is credit to the lad himself.”

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