After a huge high, there is often a crash. The euphoria surrounding Scotland’s long-awaited return to major tournaments was completely dashed on Monday by Patrik Schick, as the Czech Republic pooped at the tartan army party at Hampden Park.
This loss pushed Steve Clarke’s team into a corner; Friday, they have to go out fighting. What better place to orchestrate a change of fortunes than Wembley – and against whom better than England to do so? As soon as Scotland qualified for Euro 2020, this game became the immediate goal of virtually everyone involved. Now that it’s here, it’s interesting to read the rhetoric from both sides.
Scotland did not qualify for these championships just to focus on a game or to take advantage of the opportunity. They have the ambition to qualify for Group D, and Clarke has repeatedly stressed the need to focus on each full game.
One down and two to go; the next one happens to be against the “friends south of the border,” as Clarke so eloquently put it earlier this week. The Scottish boss doesn’t need to be briefed on the history between the parties, but he’s apathetic at best about the rivalry and the hyperbole that goes with it. He spent more of his life in England than in Scotland; he forged his reputation in the English leagues; her children are English. Clarke won’t be going into a frenzy before this game, but instead will focus on the improvements her team needs to make.
It’s an obvious cliché to think Scotland are going to raise their level against England, but that’s the bare minimum required after Monday’s disappointment. Clarke publicly defended the performance, but he was frustrated to see Schick dodge two defenders to nod his head in Game 1. Scotland also missed out on a handful of clear opportunities, with Lyndon Dykes the most to blame, which, had it been taken on another day, might have yielded a different result.
The contrast with the icy penalties converted in Belgrade in the play-off final against Serbia could not be clearer. Perhaps it was the welcome presence of a crowd, or the enormity of the occasion, but to be bluntly frank, the Scots swelled the lines when it mattered on the big day.
To take anything from Wembley, Scotland has to be more clinical. The Czechs had done little in Hampden before taking the lead, but when the opportunity presented itself they seized it. Gareth Southgate’s side dominated Croatia in their opener without looking like world beaters, but it only took Raheem Sterling a moment to score the points. England have the firepower to help them go all the way in this tournament – Scotland don’t, which is why when the odds do arise they should not be dismissed.
With that in mind, Che Adams seems a likely starter on Friday. A natural scorer with fluid movement, his bonding play with Dykes recently provided several chances against Luxembourg and provided a much more offensive threat in a heated second half at Hampden. There could also be a place for James Forrest, having shown his pace and creative threat from the bench.
No one can predict exactly what Clarke thinks in terms of team selection, but the words of Super Bowl-winning coach Bruce Arians spring to mind: “No risk, no cookie.” Scotland won’t want to leave London with the slightest regret over what could have been – it looks certain they will go on the offensive.
Still, it won’t mean anything if the backdoor can’t be closed. Kieran Tierney’s presence on the Wembley pitch would lift Scottish hearts, but the man himself admits he’s only 50-50 years old to play a role after calf strain. Tierney’s offensive surges were badly missed on Monday, but he’s also an exceptional and quick defender who can counter England’s threat from Sterling and Phil Foden.
Tactically, this game will have a different balance from Monday’s meeting with the Czechs. England will be expected to dominate the ball in midfield, so Scotland must try to disrupt. Scott McTominay and John McGinn will have no fear in doing this, but who will Clarke go by their side? Callum McGregor is an obvious choice, but the temptation to let go of Billy Gilmour can grow day by day. Gilmour is a football novice but has already proven in his short career against Liverpool and Manchester City that he can dominate a game. If Scotland are to progress in this tournament, one wonders if the Chelsea man will have an important role to play in the coming days.
The ghosts of history weigh heavily on this game, but won’t mean much on Friday at 8 p.m. Both teams have changed a lot – and arguably better – since they last met four years ago, when Leigh Griffiths’ searing free kicks were canceled out by Harry Kane’s late equalizer.
For the Tartan Army, this is the ultimate showdown, and they are already descending on London by the thousands, but most will travel in hope rather than in expectation. The atmosphere will be superb, even in a half-empty stadium, but the team that holds its own will succeed in stifling the noise and chaos that surrounds it.
Scotland are on the ropes and must react, but like a red rag to a bull, opponents who can provoke them more than any other loom on the horizon. Under Clarke, cold, calculated precision has led to progress – on Friday his team must rediscover those values to keep their qualifying hopes alive.