Ireland and Scotland will meet in the upcoming Euro 2016 qualifiers, rekindling memories of Jack Charlton’s first campaign. Andrew Muirhead of Scotzine gives us the low-down on our Celtic cousins.
After missing out once again on another major tournament, Scotland will be looking towards Euro 2016 to end our ‘qualification curse’ which has seen the Scots missing from international competitions since the World Cup 1998 in France.
Given our current standing in the game, ahead of the draw, and ranked in Pot four, we were expecting several big guns and UEFA didn’t disappoint. Scotland were handed a place in Group D alongside Germany, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Georgia and minnows Gibraltar.
While it is seen as a tough group, it is also an exciting one and one in which the fans of all countries involved will revel in. Germany will almost certainly qualify as group winners, while it will be left to Poland, Ireland, Scotland and Georgia to slug it out for the second automatic qualification spot and the third placed play-off berth – certainly not an impossible task for Scotland.
Our toughest game of the campaign will be our first, away to Germany; getting this game out of the way first is perfect for Scotland. Strachan’s side have nothing to lose in this encounter and will be looking to get off to a morale-boosting start to stand them in good spirits for the remainder of the campaign. The last time Scotland faced the Germans and won was back in 1999, when Don Hutchison scored the only goal of the game, but despite Germany’s stature in world football, clashes between the two sides have always been close affairs and Strachan will be hoping this campaign is no different.
Scotland are in a no-lose situation with Germany. No one is giving them a hope of getting six points from the two games and, revelling in their underdog status , then anything can happen – just look at those two 1-0 victories over France.
Unless it was a Scotland side under Craig Levein, you can write off Gibraltar’s chances of causing an upset, so they will be battling for a realistic chance of a qualification place.
Scotland’s previous campaigns do not give them much of a boost ahead of the Euro 2016 qualifiers but manager Strachan has transformed the fortunes of the national side since the departure of Levein, whose tenure saw Scotland receive the unwelcome tag of being the first side in the World Cup qualification campaign to have no chance of qualifying for Brazil, beating San Marino, the Faroe Islands and Liechtenstein to that crown.
“After that shambolic and embarrassing state of affairs, Strachan saw out the second half of the qualification campaign rekindling some hope of Scotland holding their heads high on the international stage.”
The last time the Scottish played Ireland was in that PR disaster of a tournament, the Carling Nations Cup. The Republic deserved their 1-0 win in the final and fully merited lifting the ‘expensive paperweight’.
That Scotland side of three years ago may have demolished Wales and Northern Ireland, but they imploded in style during the World Cup qualifiers under Levein. Today’s Scottish side is much improved on the side of 2011; they are very attack-minded and strong throughout.
The side’s only weak point – which has been exploited time and again – is the defence. Strachan and his predecessors have stuck with right back Alan Hutton, even though the Aston Villa player has not been in the club’s first team plans for several years now. He is training with Villa’s reserves and has been told his time in Birmingham is at an end due to his bumper wage packet. His last first team game at club level was back in June 2013, when he was on loan at Real Mallorca. Strachan may be backing his boy, but with no first team football, Hutton is a liability despite his fitness levels being high. His runs down the wing are almost always followed by him losing possession and allowing the opposition to exploit the gap left behind to threaten the Scotland goal. Despite this, Strachan is sticking with the former Rangers man and his stubbornness could prove fatal against the likes of Germany, Poland and Ireland.
The left-back slot is filled by right-backs – either Phil Bardsley or Steven Whittaker – but with the inclusion of Dundee United’s Andrew Robertson, there may be life in Strachan actually playing a left-sided full-back at left-back. Other than Robertson, whether some Scotland fans believe it or not, Rangers’ Lee Wallace is our best left sided defender, but until he starts to play at the highest level again either in Scotland or down in England, I cannot see why Wallace should be given a place in the squad when he is playing in a lower league against part-time footballers, whose day jobs are plumbers, painters and labourers.
Scotland’s central defensive options are a mixed bag. They marry youth and experience together on both sides of the border. Strachan’s main central defensive partnership [barring any injuries or suspensions] will be Norwich City’s Russell Martin and Blackburn’s Grant Hanley, with Brighton’s Gordon Greer and Ipswich Town’s Christophe Berra in reserve.
We will also be boosted by the return of influential midfielder Darren Fletcher, who has been out through illness for over a year. Midfield is where Scotland’s strengths lie. With the likes of new boy Ikechi Anya, James Morrison, Scott Brown, James Forrest and Robert Snodgrass all in top form, Scotland could give any side in this group a run for their money even the Germans if they are in top form that is.
Despite Strachan’s penchant for sticking with what he knows, we have a good crop of youngsters coming through the ranks at Under-21 level and they could give the former Celtic manager a welcome selection headache.
Up front Scotland have a wealth of talent also, but the main man is Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher, with the likes of Steven Naismith, Ross McCormack, Jordan Rhodes and Leigh Griffiths in reserve. Just like midfield, we have a good bunch of youngsters coming through also in the guise of St. Johnstone striker Stevie May – he may not win any competitions for his mullet but he knows where the goals are and could prove to be an unknown quantity for some sides if given a shot.
Looking at the qualifiers themselves, if Scotland have any hope of reaching France in 2016 – other than being tourists – Strachan’s side need to stamp their authority on their games, stick to their game plan and not be bullied by sides that we really should be beating.
‘Points make prizes’ as a famous 1980s game show in the UK used to tell us every weekend, and Scotland must pick up points on the road as well as at home. It is self-evident that the more points you pick up the better chance of qualification; you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work that out, however Scotland cannot afford to drop many points away against the likes of the three main opposition teams to our qualification hopes – Poland, Ireland and Georgia.
The group – bar Germany – will be a very close affair and could actually go down to the last few games and the fixture list could prove to be good for Scotland as we have Germany and Poland at home, before our final game away to Gibraltar. While all the focus will be on the field of play, off it the fans of Germany, Poland, Ireland and Scotland will provide some of the best scenes throughout the qualification round as they will always bring a large home and away support wherever they play. All four nations are passionate about their football, and their drinking, and every game will be accompanied by an atmosphere that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck and give you goose bumps all over.
Above all else, no matter the scoreline or performance, this tournament is a must for Scotland to qualify for. While the fans will be friendly and in party atmosphere, on the field Scotland must bully, harass and be lethal in front of goal.
So hopefully come the 11th October 2015, Scotland will be partying in Portugal [as Gibraltar do not have a stadium up to UEFA code currently] after securing automatic qualification.
As Ronnie Corrie famously shouted at Hampden at the end of the national anthem…. COME ON!