A game of Scrabble, a couple of episodes of Family Guy and a cup of tea. The Tartan Army might have appreciated Gordon Strachan’s prescription for a good night’s sleep on the eve of Scotland’s World Cup showdown with Slovakia.
The manager does not appear as strung-out as some fans, with trepidation, together with high ticket prices among the reasons why the Hampden crowd this evening will be below capacity for such a crucial clash.
Strachan admits life is on hold for the time being. Matches within 72 hours of each other, against the Slovaks and then Slovenia, will dictate whether Scotland’s World Cup flame continues to burn or else has been extinguished.
They must leap from fourth place to second within a matter of days. Such a positive outcome hinges on winning the first of these assignments. That alone is a tall order for an injury-hit Scotland against the group’s second seeds, whose star player, Napoli’s Marek Hamsik, will win his 100th cap.
The double-header tag is a misnomer in a way. It implies games of equal importance. But the latter’s significance will depend on what happens tonight; one false move risks rendering Sunday redundant.
The Tartan Army fear traipsing to Slovenia to watch a dead rubber, as happened at the end of the last qualifying campaign against Gibraltar. Their encouragement that evening convinced Strachan to remain in situ. It might be different on Sunday if Scotland have fallen short in the first part of their test this time.
Tonight’s the cup final. Scotland’s World Cup hopes, a manager’s future as well as the international careers of several individuals hang in the balance.That is why little else other than travel details can be confirmed for post 9:40pm this evening. Scotland’s charter flight will depart on Saturday morning for Slovenia; few other plans are able to be set in stone.
“Listen, let’s get this one out of the way and we’ll see what we’re doing after that,” said Strachan yesterday. “Somebody asked me about playing in some golf seniors’ open on the 21st of October. I told them I’ve not got a clue what I’m doing. Let’s get this out of the way first.”
This is Scotland’s most important 90 minutes for a decade. Confidence – appropriately so since I’m A Believer composer Neil Diamond has been staying in the Scotland team hotel this week – has been building.
But Strachan needs to address the concerning gap in midfield left by Scott Brown’s injury, as well as the loss of Stuart Armstrong, a recent lynchpin of the side. The experienced Darren Fletcher seems certain to step into the breach for Brown – both as midfield anchor and captain.
Not since Italy stepped out in the driving Glasgow rain for a final Euro 2008 qualifier just short of ten years ago has so much appeared tantalisingly within grasp. Victory tonight and Scotland are almost guaranteed to be 90 minutes from a play-off. Much would still need to be done but a win means Scotland picking up further momentum ahead of the trip to Ljubljana.
It wouldn’t be Scotland to do it the easy way. There seems little possibility of establishing an early two or three-goal lead to provide fans with comfort and Strachan with the luxury of making substitutions with Sunday’s game in mind.
More likely is a nerve-shredding finale. The memory of losing a goal with the last kick of the game against Poland two years ago as the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign reached a crescendo remains vivid. As does Harry Kane’s potentially ruinous equaliser in the last moments of the qualifier with England in June. “Just remind them to stay focused,” said Strachan, when asked how he can attempt to guard against such late, possibly decisive, blows. “In the Poland game, we had done something at a free-kick all the way through the campaign and we thought we had got it. Then we forgot about it right at the last minute.
“There are wee things. People have to stay focused. But there is only so much you can do as a coach. They have to stay focused themselves.”
“Listen, it is a nervous bit,” he added. “But in any big time sport you get this. If you are golfer coming into the last two holes two ahead. If you are down in tennis and somebody is serving for the match, can you deal with that?”
Strachan, pictured, explained that the pressure, while undoubtedly intense, is not as extreme as earlier in the campaign, when Scotland were desperate to escape a slough of despond. “We could have been out of this thing four or five games ago,” he said. “So I think there was more pressure than now. There is still pressure now, no doubt about it. But there is more excitement about it than the real nitty gritty we had three, four [or five] games ago.”
Included among these reference points is a game against Slovenia in March that was inching towards stalemate before substitute Chris Martin grabbed a late winner. “If it wasn’t for Chris I don’t think we’d be sitting here,” said Strachan. “He got free-kicks that other players couldn’t have got and scored goals other players might not have scored.”
Martin might emerge the man for the big occasion tonight. Or it could be a new, perhaps equally unlikely hero who keeps Russia on Scotland’s radar.