Ahead of crucial qualifiers, Scotland can afford no more slip-ups
With just four games of their 2018 World Cup Qualifying Campaign to go, Scotland know they can’t afford to drop any more points. Ahead of their matches against Lithuania and Malta, Luke Barry accesses Scotland’s challenge.
“That was emotional. This is crucial.” Those are the words of the Scottish FA’s advertising campaign to sell tickets for Monday’s World Cup Qualifying challenge against Malta, but in all honesty what was crucial was a mislaid Stuart Armstrong pass.
Scotland almost did the unthinkable against the English on what has so far been the highlight of a stuttering campaign. 1-0 down heading into the final ten minutes, up popped Leigh Griffiths with two superlative free kicks, either side of Joe Hart, to fire the Scots into dreamland with just minutes to play. But just as the fans had started to believe, a chance to breakaway was embarrassingly squandered and Harry Kane had volleyed home to tie the game at 2-2.
No matter how great a performance this mostly was and how much of a scalp it is to take points off the runaway table-toppers, this could well be looked back on as two points dropped rather than one gained. Gordon Strachan’s side’s inability to close out a game cost them dear.
Nearly three months have passed since then, with Scotland now looking ahead to two must-win games. The first in Vilniaus against Lithuania on Friday 1st September before they return to Hampden Park to face Malta three days later.
Lying fourth in the table with two wins, two draws and two defeats suggests inconsistency, but in reality it should be four wins, and two draws. The away trip to Lithuania is of utmost importance. Memories of the lacklustre draw at home last autumn must be banished, with the added challenge of succeeding on the road: something Scotland have only done once, on the opening fixture of their campaign against Malta.
Should Strachan’s men win on Friday, a win on Monday is all but guaranteed. With the Tartan Army in full force and a spring in their step, Malta, who are yet to register a point in the group, should be swept aside. A defeat would wreck Scotland’s hopes of qualifying.
It’s all about second place and an impending play-off for the team who haven’t qualified since 1998. Going into the next round of fixtures, England lead with 14 points with Slovakia on 12 and Slovenia on 11. Scotland trail on eight, and can afford no more slip-ups.
The team most likely to take points off Slovakia and Slovenia are England, who are odds on to finish top of the table. But even if the Three Lions defeat both teams between them and Scotland, the Scots would still only be level with Slovenia and a point behind Slovakia assuming all teams win their remaining fixtures. Scotland are bizarrely heavily reliant on their oldest enemy.
But crucially, the Scots still have to face both Slovenia and Slovakia, and will do so in their final match days of the campaign in just over a month. Win both these, and that should secure second place in the group behind England. The dream is maybe fading, but it is definitely not over.
The players need to remember that. Strachan’s squad to face Lithuania and Malta is predictable but exciting. The withdrawal of Tom Cairney through injury is disappointing but James Morrison is a good backup option, and then there is all the excitement around Leigh Griffiths who finally got off the mark for Scotland in June.
The rest of the squad is solid and dynamic, with a mix of experience and youth. Millwall goalkeeper Jordan Archer is also an exciting addition, while Matt Phillips is an intriguing unknown in a Scotland shirt.
The home draws to Lithuania and England have the potential to define this campaign. Wins against Lithuania and Malta and an English win against Slovakia on matchday eight could go a long way on getting Scotland’s campaign back on track.
Squad to face Lithuania & Malta
Goalkeepers: Jordan Archer (Millwall), Craig Gordon (Celtic), Allan McGregor (Hull City)
Defenders: Ikechi Anya (Derby County), Christophe Berra (Heart of Midlothian), Grant Hanley (Newcastle United), Russell Martin (Norwich City), Charlie Mulgrew (Blackburn Rovers), Andrew Robertson (Liverpool), Kieran Tierney (Celtic), Steven Whittaker (Hibernian)
Midfielders: Stuart Armstrong (Celtic), Barry Bannan (Sheffield Wednesday), Scott Brown (Celtic), James Morrison (West Bromwich Albion), Darren Fletcher (Stoke City), James McArthur (Crystal Palace), James Forrest (Celtic), Ryan Fraser (AFC Bournemouth), John McGinn (Hibernian), Matt Phillips (West Bromwich Albion, Matt Ritchie (Newcastle United), Robert Snodgrass (Aston Villa)
Forwards: Leigh Griffiths (Celtic), Chris Martin (Derby County), Steven Naismith (Norwich City)