Strachan plays it cool but Tartan Army’s joy clear as arch rivals are drawn in Group F, writes Andrew Smith
T HE cheers that echoed round Hampden from the clump of invited supporters watching the World Cup draw in the east stand on a big screen alongside Scotland manager Gordon Strachan last night told their own story. So voluble and sustained were they that it could only have been an England match-up for Strachan’s men in a Group F that will also comprise Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta.
Seconds after these St Petersburg selections for the qualifying groups for the finals in Russia in 2018, England followers were declaring on Twitter that their participation in the first such tournament held across eastern Europe and western Asia was guaranteed. This is a perception shared by most and placed the Hampden roars and jocular chants of “easy, easy” in a suicidal context. The juiciness of meeting the Auld Enemy was, it seemed, blinding the reality of the likely outcome when the sides joust in a World Cup qualifying group for the first time since they were bidding to reach the 1954 finals in Sweden.
England prevailed then, as they did in the last home-and-away competitive confrontations between the bordering rivals, which came in the play-offs for Euro 2000 – a 1-0 Scotland win at Wembley not enough to undo the damage inflicted by a Paul Scholes double at Hampden days earlier.
Strachan, though, understood the euphoria about facing Roy Hodgson’s side – who beat Scotland 3-1 in a friendly at Celtic Park only last November. “You wouldn’t have got that reaction for anybody else. You can see the reaction from the fans, just as the sun came out in Glasgow [how much they relished it],” said the Scotland coach. “I can see why they are celebrating; it’s a fantastic fixture. We [the coaches] will look forward and pits our wits again.
“[The last time we met] England stepped it up a gear and it was a fantastic lesson. They pressurise you and you make mistakes and that is something that sticks with us – and I hope sticks with us to fire us on. The good thing from the supporters’ point of view is there are no ridiculous journeys. That allows us more time on the training pitch.
“There are nice and fresh elements to us playing other teams for the first time. Even on the cultural side, there are good cities to visit. But by the time I go home tonight, I will be back thinking about Georgia and Germany [as the next teams we play in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign].
“You never know the reality of what will happen in 14 months’ time, 18 months’ time. You can have new coaches, players coming in and out. Look at how Wales developed in the last qualifying campaign. They’ve come from pot six to pot one in little time. I’ve enjoyed the last couple of hours, but it doesn’t matter beyond that for now.”
Strachan said it “didn’t bother” him much that Scotland drew England. He accepted that Scotland fans would want to beat that nation above all others, but said that wasn’t unusual. “Everybody in the world wants to beat England – they are the Old Firm of international football,” he said.
Scotland will be facing the Slovakians for the first time in a competitive fixture. They currently boast a 100 per cent record in Group C of the Euro 2016 qualifiers, having beaten Spain last year. Unsurprisingly, Scotland have played England more than any other nation. In the past 20 years, it seems Scotland have continually played Lithuania and this 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign will mark the fifth time the two teams have been drawn alongside one another.
The dates and scheduling for the European element of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign will be confirmed today. Beginning in September next year, the nine group winners will progress, while the eight best runners-up will meet in two-legged play-off matches to decide the continent’s four remaining slots for the Russian finals. Whenever Scotland are sent to Slovakia it will bring Strachan back to the country for the first time since his opening game in charge of Celtic, in July 2005 – an evening that brought a 5-0 defeat to Artmedia Bratislava in a Champions League qualifier that marked the club’s heaviest-ever defeat in the continental arena.
“Christ, I forgot all about that,” the Scotland manager said. “That will get brought up now! Listen, we all survived that night. But it was a long, long, long, long night. I haven’t been back.
“They might invite me back in a couple of years’ time for the tenth or 20th anniversary. It might as well come up now.”
How Scotland will fare in qualifiers that will lead into finals that will take place on the 20th anniversary of the country’s last appearance in a World Cup finals is anyone’s guess. The improvement in Scotland’s fortunes across his two and a half years in charge encourages Strachan but he said: “‘I think we understand that most teams can beat us but most teams we can beat as well. That’s us as a group,” he said. “‘It’s quite simple, that’s us as a group. If we’ve got nine players playing well on the one night, that will be terrific, we’ll have an 80 per cent chance. If we’ve got 11 out of 11 it’s a 90 per cent chance we’ll beat teams”
Scotland have appeared in eight World Cup finals, with Strachan representing his country in Spain in 1982 and scoring in a defeat by Germany during the Mexico tournament four years later. The regularity with which Scotland could then win through to these global football extravaganzas – before then exiting in the opening group stages – wasn’t just down to the vastly superior pool of players then turning out in dark blue, according to Strachan.
“It’s going to be hard [to make Russia in 2018]. People say ‘oh, Scotland used to get there all the time’. In 1974 Czechoslovakia and Denmark were in the one group but forget Denmark, it was a play-off between Scotland and Czechoslovakia. And that standard has been raised miles past that...’ Strachan will have to continue to raise Scotland’s standard to make yesterday’s events truly historic.
THE DRAW IN FULL
Group A: Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxembourg
Group B: Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra
Group C: Germany, Czech Republic, NORTHERN IRELAND, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino
Group D: WALES, Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Moldova, Georgia,
Group E: Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Kazakhstan
Group F: ENGLAND, Slovakia, SCOTLAND, Malta, Lithuania, Slovenia
Group G: Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia, Liechtenstein
Group H: Belgium, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus
Group I : Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland