This weekend’s clash is not just a huge game for the hosts. A resurgent Scotland are looking to qualify for their first major tournament in almost two decades. Michael Wood of ScottishFans.org gives the view from the visiting Tartan Army.
Gordon Strachan’s Scotland head to Dublin for Saturday’s Euro 2016 qualifying match with reason to be positive. The National Team has enjoyed a solid if unspectacular campaign so far, currently sitting in third position in Group D, undoubtedly the tightest of the nine qualifying pools. A win in the reverse fixture at Celtic Park in November of last year was a huge boost for Scotland, putting them two points ahead of Ireland and keeping within striking distance of Poland and Germany, who occupy the two automatic qualification places.
Shaun Maloney’s goal in a nervy 1-0 win means that a repeat performance this weekend will leave Martin O’Neill’s side on the brink of missing out on France next summer. With the 2016 European Championship’s being the first to host twenty four teams after an expansion from sixteen, up to three teams from each group could conceivably qualify. Being able to see off one of their main rivals would boost Scotland’s chances of competing in a first major international tournament since Craig Brown led the nation to the 1998 World Cup, also held in France.
Ireland represents the Scot’s toughest remaining away fixture, having secured a draw in Warsaw against Poland and narrowly losing out to reigning World Champions Germany, 2-1 in Dortmund. Under Strachan, the team has become more robust and aggressive, restoring a sense of pride and confidence from the supporters not seen since under Walter Smith’s management. With a raft of players plying their trade in the English Premier League, a significant proportion of Scotland regulars are playing at a higher level, against better opponents and in European competition. This has been complemented with a growing influx of talented young players; including Hull City full back Andy Robertson. Scotland have also spread the net further and wider, selecting players who qualify for the nation through parentage or grand parentage – such as Bournemouth’s Matt Ritchie and Derby County’s Chris Martin. For the vast majority of Scottish fans, this hasn’t proved to be irksome, with an understanding that it could provide the strength in depth necessary to finally see the team back at the highest level of international football.
It is players such as Matt Ritchie and Watford’s Ikechi Anya that provide the biggest threat from Strachan’s men. Usually deploying a flexible 4-5-1 formation, width is crucial to Scotland’s attacking approach, with only one centre forward selected – usually Steven Fletcher or Steven Naismith. The pace that Anya especially brings to the team is complemented by midfield runs, with Shaun Maloney and Scott Brown having found the net on more than one occasion over recent fixtures. Strachan will be happy for Ireland to take the initiative on Saturday, with his team picking and choosing their opportunities to hit on the counter attack.
Where the Irish may be able to take advantage is Scotland’s central defensive area. Gordon Strachan has been able to consistently pick the same players in that position, but the quality of player available doesn’t match that of the rest of the team and represents the side’s weak link. Two of Christophe Berra, Gordon Greer and Russell Martin will likely form the defensive pairing on Saturday, flanked by full backs Alan Hutton on the right and either Andy Robertson or Steven Whittaker on the left; with Robertson by far the more attacking option if that is the approach that Strachan settles on. David Marshall is expected to continue to keep goal, ahead of Celtic’s number one Craig Gordon. Scotland will certainly fancy their chances of winning the game if Strachan’s strongest eleven can be selected – they struggled at times in the home match against the Irish, but proved more clinical when it matters.
The cordial relationship between the Scots and the Irish will mean a large contingent of the Tartan Army will be making the journey across to Dublin, likely far more than those who actually hold tickets. The Aviva Stadium will hopefully generate as good an atmosphere as was witnessed at Celtic Park in November, with a win for either side giving them a significant boost going into the final four qualifying matches.
“Although ideally many supporters in Scotland would like to see both Scotland and Ireland make it to France next summer, with the group balanced the way it is, one of the two teams qualifying, rather than both looks more realistic, whether automatically or through the play-offs. Certainly having both teams present for the finals would create a fantastic atmosphere, as both nations would be expected to travel in high numbers.”
Saturday’s match should be a great occasion for both sets of supporters. With such high stakes for both sides and a victory for either going a long way to securing a place at Franc 2016, the ninety minutes certainly won’t be short on excitement and drama and least of all nerves. A victory for Scotland would put them within touching distance of at least a play-off berth, with home fixtures against Germany and Poland and winnable away matches at Gibraltar and Georgia. Gordon Strachan’s team have lost only one of their last seven matches – a 1-3 reverse to England in a friendly in November last year – and supporters will be hoping that run can be extended in Dublin on Saturday. Do so and a first international tournament in almost twenty years will be tantalisingly close.
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