|Date: Wednesday, 1 September Location: Parken Stadium, Copenhagen Kick-off: 19:45 BST|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio Scotland, text updates at BBC Sport website, Sportscene highlights on BBC One Scotland at 22:35 BST|
It depends on how you want to cut it, whether you’re glass half full or glass half empty. In the past year, Scotland have played 14 competitive games and they’ve either won four of the 14 – if you judge them on 90 minutes – or six of the 14 – if you count penalty shootout victories.
Let’s say six, but even six from 14 isn’t exactly setting the pulse racing. All the top players we keep talking about – Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney, Scott McTominay, John McGinn and now Billy Gilmour – and the only countries Scotland have beaten in truly meaningful games in the last 12 months are the Faroes, the Czech Republic (boy, did they take their revenge) and Slovakia.
For all the on-going Covid-induced mayhem in Steve Clarke’s squad for the World Cup qualifier against Denmark in Copenhagen on Wednesday, the Scotland manager still has the core of the team that put up the best performance of his reign – the 0-0 draw that felt like a win against England in the Euros. McTominay, McGinn and Stephen O’Donnell are missing and David Marshall has been dropped, but the rest are intact. So far.
Despite the defections, if he wants it, Clarke could have an all-Premier League back three (Norwich captain Grant Hanley, Leeds captain Liam Cooper and Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney) or an all Premier League back four if he opts for the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option and moves Tierney to right-back and picks Liverpool’s Andy Robertson at left-back.
He could have Jack Hendry as one of his centre-halves or as a right-back if prefers, Hendry having signed for Champions League club Bruges on Tuesday for a reported £8m, or thereabouts. He’s got many men unavailable to him, but Clarke is not exactly destitute in the options department.
Clarke could also play two Premier League central midfielders (Billy Gilmour and Kenny McLean) and a Premier League striker (Che Adams). On top of that, he can have Hearts captain Craig Gordon in goal, Celtic captain Callum McGregor in the middle of the park and Lyndon Dykes, three in three from play for QPR, alongside Adams up front.
His players have been dropping like flies – the cavalry is so threadbare it could struggle to sound a bugle, never mind influence a battle – but, on paper, Scotland’s XI with a few notable back-ups still looks decent. We’ve been saying that for a while, of course. They looked a decent squad going into the Euros and got one point and one goal, they looked a decent squad going into this World Cup campaign and could only draw at home to Austria and draw away to Israel in their opening two games.
Results have not matched reputation as yet. Those were damaging draws at the outset of the group and the time has come to make amends. Denmark on Wednesday, Moldova on Saturday and Austria on Tuesday. At that point we’ll know if they’re still in the hunt for World Cup qualification or if all hope is lost.
Great Danes have shown their bite
Getting to the Euros was a relief, but how many times did the manager and his players say that mere qualification wasn’t going to sate them, that they would not be happy just to make up the numbers? That was their fate, though. Also-rans. Clarke has a bit to prove here. There’s ground to make up and the problem for him is that he’s about to go up against one of the best teams at the Euros.
Denmark have been stripped of some stellar players as well. Jannik Vestergaard, the Southampton defender, Martin Braithwaite, the Barcelona attacker, and Kasper Dolberg, the Nice striker, were all mainstays of the Denmark team that made it to the semi-finals only to be beaten by England in extra time.
Christian Eriksen is the biggest loss of all, but even without the great man, Denmark put four goals on Wales and another four on Russia in the summer. They’ve started this qualifying campaign with a 2-0 win away to Israel, an 8-0 thumping of Moldova, and a 4-0 win away to Austria that took place only a few months before the Austrians took Italy to extra time in the last 16 of the Euros.
Fourteen goals scored and none conceded. Plus home advantage. Plus a form line that shows them walloping Israel, a team that Scotland struggle to beat, and Austria, a team that Scotland trailed twice at Hampden in March before getting a draw, with a 2-1 win on top of that against the Czechs, who ran out comfortable 2-0 winners against Scotland in Glasgow. The portents, you might say, are not good.
‘Performances must chime with reputations’
Clarke wouldn’t be happy with a point – he’d be delirious. Add another three from the Moldova game and another one away to Austria and he’ll have had a terrific week. And that’s what’s needed now. On the face of it, the current group table looks encouraging for Scotland, but in reality those two draws against Austria and Israel will come back to haunt them unless they start hurting those other teams around them.
Scotland pulled off a result against expectation at Wembley and the same intensity, concentration, accuracy and work-rate is required now. With a flourish up front to boot. Only fleetingly has Clarke managed to deliver the kind of performances that chime with the reputations of some of his star cast, but it’s time everybody stepped up.
We know there’s a great mood in the camp, we know that everybody is behind the manager, we know how proud they all are to play for their country and how determined they are to succeed. We heard all of this at the Euros and then the Czechs and the Croats had them for breakfast.
They failed in the summer. Take away the emotion of having made it to a tournament at long last (via the back door) and that’s the inescapable bottom line. In the coming week, they have other opportunities to make a name for themselves as a team of substance rather than just a collection of talented individuals at big clubs.
Qatar is about 3,500 miles from Glasgow, a relative hop, skip and jump compared to how far removed from the World Cup Scotland will feel if these games don’t bring positive outcomes.