Why Strachan’s Tartan Army could still make World Cup
Following the dramatic affairs of the 2-2 draw with England back in June, my return to Hampden to see the Scots face off against Malta had a lot to live up, writes David Ronney.
It was Hearts’ Christophe Berra who sent the crowd roaring nine minutes into the game, however, there was an explosion of support from the Tartan Army once again 30 minutes later. Quite bizarrely it wasn’t due to what was happening in cloudy Glasgow but rather the news that the Auld’ Enemy had equalised against Slovakia. England went onto win the game 2-1, reviving Scotland’s dream of qualification for the World Cup.
Never could I imagine Scotland fans, myself included, celebrating the prospect of our national rivals winning. However, due to lacklustre performances from Scotland early into the qualifying campaign, most notably the draw with Lithuania, Gordon Strachan’s men need every result they can to go in their favour.
With two games left in the qualifying campaign, winning both should secure Scotland a playoff spot. In October, they will welcome Slovakia to Hampden before travelling out Slovenia for what could be an all or nothing scenario.
Despite taking the lead three minutes into the match, Slovakia’s goal against England was one of two shots recorded on target in the 90 minutes. If a defensive structure is set up correctly for Scotland like it was for England, then it is possible that Strachan’s backline could keep the shots against Craig Gordon to as few as possible. Saying this, Scotland were defeated quite comfortably by Slovakia back in October 2016 as they lost by three goals to nil.
The centre back duo of Charlie Mulgrew and Berra worked well, however, they were not troubled by the opposition that often. Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney are great going forward and good at falling back to cover the wide areas when possession is lost. However, in the final two qualification matches, they must do more of the latter as their opposition for these two games will not allow them to be comfortable with possession like they were against Lithuania and Malta.
At the other end of the field it is clear that Leigh Griffiths must start both games. The Celtic star was left on the bench early into the campaign with his appearances coming as a substitute. His first start in the qualifying campaign came against England where they lost 3-0. Considering Griffiths’ campaign at club level last season as he floated in and out of Brendan Rodgers’ starting 11 due to the form of Moussa Dembele, it was always going to be difficult for the striker at Wembley.
Nevertheless, since his two sublime free kicks against England, Griffiths has been a breath of fresh air for both club and country. His movement and pace reflects onto his teammates as they begin to look even better as a squad. The 27-year-old’s goal against Malta made him the joint top goal scorer for Scotland in the qualifying campaign for Russia with three goals.
When Griffiths was then subbed due to injury, there was a loss of momentum for Scotland, something that the striker influenced into his teammates. In the worst-case scenario where Griffiths isn’t available to play, Scotland must ensure they play with a high degree of momentum regardless of his possible absence as they play their best football as a result.
Robert Snodgrass shares Griffiths’ goal tally for Strachan’s side, albeit from a hat-trick against Malta in the opening game of the campaign. The winger hasn’t featured for Scotland since the draw with England, arguably due to his poor spell with West Ham which has now resulted in the player being sent on loan to Aston Villa for the season.
The 30-year-old now faces competition for a place in the starting lineup with the likes of Matt Ritchie, James Forrest and Matt Phillips all in contention for a spot. The services of Oliver Burke could also be called upon if the player has a successful start to his West Brom career in the coming months.
It is understood that Strachan left the player out so that he could play regularly for the under-21s side and continue his development, but there is always a chance he could return to the first team sooner than expected.
Scotland’s last competitive tournament came in 1998 World Cup in France, so fans will be hoping that the long wait may finally be over.