Alan Pattullo: Scotland campaign has floundered as dismally as many before but it is not Steve Clarke’s fault
Inot as bad as 2013, when the Scots became the first team in Europe to bow out of the equation for the World Cup finals the following year. Automatic qualification might not even be officially beyond them.
Crucially, however, Steve Clarke has now conceded that the focus must turn to the play-offs if Scotland are to reach Euro 2020. This view had been adopted a few days earlier by a demoralised Tartan Army.
Fewer than 25,000 were lured out to watch Scotland fail to contain Belgium’s star-studded side on Monday after the latest doubleheader had kicked off with a more meaningful 2-1 defeat to Russia.
A campaign which started with a degree of hope has floundered as dismally as many before it. It’s not Clarke’s fault. The situation just underlines how important it is to make a good start. Scotland were fighting for their lives from the moment Bakitar Zaynutdinov’s header left Scott Bain stranded and put Kazakhstan 3-0 up shortly after half-time in the opening game in March. “This is an emergency situation” wailed the loudspeakers at Hampden as those still left in the stadium at around 11pm on Monday were asked to evacuate the premises following the 4-0 defeat. It has long been crisis point as far as the Scottish team is concerned.
Clarke, pictured, now goes into one of those strange periods of incubation he admits he is finding it difficult to get used to. Players have fled the scene. By the time you read this they will be back preparing for club games this weekend.
The resumption of league activity is a wonderful deflection from the matter in hand. The debate about lack of facilities, about “No Ball Games” signs, the middle-class creep into a working-class game and Scotland’s persistent shortcomings will be parked for another few weeks.
“This is the bit I have to get my head around,” said Clarke. “I have to get used to international management. The players will go back to their clubs, they will all be playing at the weekend, they will all be thinking about other things. My job is to stew on this, analyse the two performances and try to improve us for the next game.”
He is desperate to get back on the training ground but can’t. He is keen to iron out the defensive weaknesses that saw Scotland concede two basic headers from set pieces against Belgium. “It’s not like us, in my short spell in charge certainly, we’ve defended set plays quite well,” added Clarke. “Conceding at set plays against a team like Belgium is difficult and is something we have to address.”
The next time he will have the opportunity to address these areas of concern is in the precious few days allotted to him before the clash against Russia in Moscow next month.
Time will be further at a premium due to the travel involved and there’s no magic wand he can wave to conjure up a couple of international-class centre-halves and a centre-forward able to make some kind of impact on this stage. The last two games showcased what a boon it is to have someone like Romelu Lukaku or Artem Dzyuba leading the line.
“Having looked at the pool of players I have got, that is what I have got,” said Clarke. “I have to deal with the players that I have got, the players who are available. It is my job to work with the players we have and try to improve them as a team and move the country forward.”
He stressed that, with automatic qualification now beyond the Scots, the next target is putting some results together to secure third place in the group. Momentum is something Scotland have lacked since the final months of Gordon Strachan’s tenure.
Strachan was unbeaten in his last six qualifiers as Scotland fell a goal short of a World Cup play-off place but was released on the misplaced assumption Michael O’Neill could be lured from Northern Ireland.
O’Neill is still there and, by all acounts, oversaw a better effort to curb a European powerhouse in the form of Germany than the Scots managed against Belgium on the same night.
Northern Ireland remain very much in the automatic qualifying frame. Clarke is understandably impatient to get back to winning ways prior to the play-offs early next year.
He is realistic enough to know that he might have to wait slightly longer than the next appointment.
Scotland face San Marino at home a few days after an arduous trip to Russia. While representing a sizeable challenge to the SFA marketing department, the clash with the minnows of Group I provides some potential relief for Clarke after what could prove four successive defeats.
Scotland then conclude their campaign with a trip to Cyprus and a home match against Kazakhstan.
“You have to remember that the games coming up, with the exception of Russia, who were also in the last eight of the last World Cup, will not be as difficult,” said Clarke.
“These are the games we have to target and if we find a level of consistency and a level of performance then we have to get the points that get us to third position in the group. This is all I can look at.
“This is why we said in the dressing-room that we have to target finishing third because it will mean we have gone from fifth to third and have won matches, have found a way of playing that suits us and it gives us belief going into the play-off games, which are now going to be absolutely crucial.”