It’s been 23 long years since France ’98, but thanks to David Marshall’s big left paw, Scotland are finally back in the big-time at this summer’s European Championships.
Party fever is gripping the nation as Steve Clarke’s team gather themselves to try and go where no Scotland team has gone before. Getting out of Group D, which also features England and Croatia, will not be an easy task, but the Scots go into it high on belief and with nothing to lose.
Clarke has been keen to temper expectations heading into a first major tournament in more than two decades, but the rest of us can’t help but get a little ahead of ourselves.
Are we going to win it? Probably not.
Could we win it? Look, if Greece can do it…
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It’s pretty wild to think about how far Scotland have come in the two-and-a-bit years since qualifying for Euro 2020 kicked off. Back in March 2019, they started things with a 3-0 defeat to Kazakhstan, and couldn’t have looked further from European Championship material.
Unsurprisingly, the dismissal of McLeish and the arrival of Clarke came just weeks later, and it took the new man a while to get things going. Their form in Clarke’s early days was mixed, and Russia and Belgium took control of Group I, but comfortable victories over San Marino, Cyprus and Kazakhstan (the second time) led them to third place.
Winning their Nations League group, though, meant they had a second chance to qualify. Penalties were required to take care of Israel, and that set up a shootout with Serbia in Belgrade, for which Scotland were not fancied one bit.
In what can only be described as Clarke’s finest hour as a manager, though, Scotland and their shint new five-at-the-back formation stepped up and took the game to the Serbs. Aleksandar Mitrovic’s late equaliser looked like a heartbreaker, but Scotland recovered to win it on penalties, and mayhem ensued.
The Israel and Serbia games were the first penalty shootouts in Scotland’s competitive history, and they didn’t miss a single kick in either. So yeah, if it comes to it later this month, there’s that.
In terms of the actual game of football, though, Scotland’s strengths lie in the collective. Clarke’s consistent team selection throughout his two years in charge has bred a group of players who know each other inside out.
They’re aggressive, organised, and hard to break down, as two defeats in their last 12 matches will attest. But they are also well-drilled in the 5-3-2 shape that Clarke favours, and that is often enough to catch out bigger sides who are less secure in their shape.
Despite their rigid shape, there is also an intensity to the Scotland team, something which unsettled the Netherlands in their recent warmup friendly. The extra defender gives the forward players more security to press, and with energetic wing-backs like Andy Robertson and Stephen O’Donnell in the side, it can be effective against anyone.
Look, there’s a reason Scotland are ranked 44th in the world. Clarke has done a stellar job if steadying the ship and installing a gritty mentality into the team that was missing under McLeish and Gordon Strachan, but ultimately, the group is still limited in ability in comparison to the likes of England and Croatia.
Opta recently gave them a 0.1% chance of winning the Euros, better only than Slovakia and North Macedonia, and while that may seem a little harsh, it’s a reminder that Scotland still have a long way to go yet.
While they are a hard team to beat, it’s also worth noting that they often have a tough time winning in 90 minutes. Since qualifying, the Scots have only won one of their six matches outright, and they need to start finding a killer touch in games.
Finding the right combination of Lyndon Dykes, Ryan Christie, Che Adams and Kevin Nisbet up front could be the key there – Clarke is yet to crack that code.
When qualifying started for the Euros, Lyndon Dykes was an Australian striker playing for Queen of the South in the Scottish Championship. Now he’s a fully-fledged Scotland international and a vital part of Clarke’s side.
The target man doesn’t exactly bang the goals in for his adopted country but his work off the ball is akin to Olivier Giroud. He’s the reason the players around him score goals.
Elsewhere, John McGinn’s ten goals in 32 caps tell you all you need to know about his creative influence over the Scotland team. The five-defender system, meanwhile, has got the best out of Kieran Tierney, whose rampaging runs forward from the left of the back three are the driving force in much of what Scotland do.
And how could you not mention Saturday Night David Marshall? What a man.
Clarke has named his final 26-player squad, though it remains to be seen if John Fleck will be able to travel after he tested positive for Covid-19.
Goalkeepers: Craig Gordon, David Marshall, Jon McLaughlin
Defenders: Liam Cooper, Declan Gallagher, Grant Hanley, Jack Hendry, Scott McKenna, Stephen O’Donnell, Nathan Patterson, Andy Robertson, Greg Taylor, Kieran Tierney
Midfielders: Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Christie, John Fleck, Billy Gilmour, John McGinn, Callum McGregor, Scott McTominay, David Turnbull
Forwards: Che Adams, Lyndon Dykes, James Forrest, Ryan Fraser, Kevin Nisbet
Despite all their recent improvement, Scotland are the lowest ranked team in their group, and the fourth-lowest in the entire competition. If they do anything at all this summer, it will be an upset, and that’s why Clarke has been urging realism.
Having said that.
The expanded 24-team tournament does give them a better chance than ever of making it beyond the group stage. And the fact their first game comes against the Czech Republic, a team roughly in line with them ability-wise, gives them a reasonable platform to get off to a good start.
If they can win that game and nick a point from either England or Croatia – the latter of whom have never beaten Scotland, ever – then they might just find themselves making history.