Euro Football

Scotland buoyed by optimistic Steve Clarke but face difficult Russian test to reach Euro 2020


The constrictions of Scotland’s route to qualification for Euro 2020 have become clear after last week’s expedition to Brussels. Defeat by Belgium, who have a perfect record after four games, left the Scots needing to take four points from their matches against Russia, the first of which is at Hampden Park on September 6, with the return in Moscow on October 10.

Between times, Steve Clarke’s players have their home meeting with the Belgians on September 9. A draw against the team at the top of the Fifa rankings cannot be discounted entirely, but that outcome would constitute a bonus, although not one exceeding the bounds of hope.

If Andy Robertson – who was ruled out last Tuesday because of a hamstring injury – is able to play against Belgium in Glasgow and if Leigh Griffiths can demonstrate that a half season spent in therapy for personal issues has been effective, then Clarke’s options will increase significantly. The manager did not emerge from his first two games in charge without criticism, some of it scathing, on social media, but those Scottish fans who remained in the King Baudouin stadium after the final whistle sounded on a 3-0 defeat were evidently buoyed by the attitude displayed by their team, to judge by the singing and dancing that ensued.

True, Clarke enjoyed a slice of beginner’s luck in the form of Oli Burke’s first international goal in the last minute of normal time against Cyprus, which ensured a 2-1 win. Nevertheless, the man who had been shoehorned into position within hours of the end of his domestic campaign with Kilmarnock had already made an impact on the Scottish squad.

Despite the introduction of Eamonn Brophy as a debutant striker, Clarke’s selection for the Cyprus fixture had earned a total of 100 caps more than the callow side employed in the opening qualifiers in Kazakhstan – where the 3-0 beating immediately took its place amongst the worst results suffered by a Scotland team – and in San Marino.

The maintenance of nerve and Clarke’s decision to replace Brophy with Burke against Cyprus combined to ensure that the Scots would retain hope throughout the summer, despite the anticipated loss in Brussels. The manager’s emphasis on positivity was echoed in the comments of his players as they looked back on what, for some, has been a particularly demanding campaign.

“I’ve played 69 games and that’s the most I’ve ever had in a season but it’s been great,” Callum McGregor said. “With Scotland, there’s a real sense of optimism amongst the group as well as the media and the fans.

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