His reign as Scotland manager may only be two games old butis already fully briefed on the challenges that lie ahead. One win and one defeat kept them in the running for qualification to Euro 2020, they are now involved in a three-horse race with Russia and Kazakhstan to finish second behind runaway Group I leaders Belgium.
The former Chelsea defender enjoyed great success with Scottish Premiership side Kilmarnock, leading the Rugby Park side to Europa League qualification before packing up his stuff and answering the Hampden SOS. Despite barely getting his jacket off the 55-year-old from Saltcoats was rushed onto the front line.
Clarke thrust into the firing line
Challenged with picking his side just days after accepting the job, Clarke’s new look Scotland faced a must-win against Cyprus on Saturday night. They got the desired result thanks to a 2-1 scoreline and looked good value for the points, but the performance seemed to throw up more questions than answers.
Cyprus proved difficult to break down in Glasgow and it took a wonder goal from Liverpool’s Andy Robertson to break their resistance. The youngster scored a contender for goal of the week on the hour and that placed his teammates in a commanding position. As any member of the Tartan Army will confess, following Scotland is rarely simple and a round of abysmal defending allowed Ionnis Kousoulos to nod home an equaliser on 87 minutes.
A late sucker punch but one the team were able to recover from, Oli Burke tapping home from close range to settle a nervy match after his initial shot came back off the upright. A win and three much-needed points against a rival, but it was obvious Clarke had to sort his backline out, and fast.
Signs of improvement against Belgium
Unfortunately, a trip to the number one ranked side in the world followed and Clarke suffered his first defeat as Scotland boss at the second time of asking when swallowing a 3-0 loss in Belgium on Tuesday. The dark blues did show signs of improvement in defence and were able to hold the Belgians off until first-half stoppage time.
But Romelu Lukaku scored on 45+1 to wreck the half-time team talk. It was a deserved goal and one of Scotland’s own making, coming at the worst possible time. Lukaku added a second on 57 minutes and with the game dead on its feet, Kevin De Bruyne showed incredible accuracy to slot home in the dying seconds of the contest.
Few expected Scotland to get anything more than three points from the two games but there was reason to be confident moving forward. They beat Cyprus more comfortably than the final score suggests and lost a goal in both first half and second half stoppage time against the best side in the world. Scotland created a couple of decent chances against Belgium and, with a bit more composure in the final third, could’ve made things difficult.
Crucial clash with Russia up next
How does that leave their Euro 2020 qualifying hopes? Scotland sit fourth in Group I on six points, having beaten San Marino and Cyprus, losing to Kazakhstan and Belgium. They are level with Kazakhstan in third and three behind second-placed Russia, still to play the latter home and away. Belgium boast a 100% record, as was expected, and look on course to win the pool at a canter.
Traders don’t think too much of Scotland’s chances of getting out of Group I and the Betfair Sportsbook offers 100/1 on them winning the division, behind 1/10 Belgium and 5/1. The team is next in action when hosting Russia at Hampden on 6 September. Steve Clarke will spend the time between now and game five working closely with his squad.
Tightening a defence that has been too generous to opponents of late will be his number one priority, as well as injecting self-belief and confidence into the ranks following a difficult few years. There’s still all to play for in Group I but beating Russia in Glasgow later this year is crucial.
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