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It may seem unforgiving, but Scotland’s Euro 2020 opener against the Czech Republic could be make-or-break.
Win that game and Scotland will go into their Group D fixtures against England and Croatia full of confidence that they can progress despite – or perhaps aided by – their underdog status. Lose, and they face two extremely tough games knowing that they need at least one win against the odds.
Given that this is their first major tournament in 23 years, Scotland fans have already heard their fair share of patronising commentary suggesting they are just happy to be there. Brow ever furrowed, chin grey and grizzled, Steve Clarke only knows one way to approach football and that is with quiet seriousness.
Speaking to Sky Sports last week, Celtic midfielder Ryan Christie suggested that the players also have a point to prove. “We don’t want to be seen as just a team making up the numbers,” he said. “We are here for a reason and that is because we belong here, we think.”
Scotland kick off their Euro 2020 campaign against the Czech Republic at Hampden Park
They may be long odds to get to the latter stages of the tournament, but Scotland have it in them to surprise a few people.
They proved as much with a 2-2 draw against the Netherlands in their first warm-up friendly, despite following up with a choppy 1-0 win against 10-man Luxembourg. They will walk out at Hampden on Monday with only two defeats from their last 16 games and Clarke will hope the same grit and resilience defines their tournament.
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Style of play
Scotland will look to accommodate both Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney in defence
(Image: Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith)
If there’s one thing Scotland lack, it’s a prolific goalscorer. While Southampton ’s Che Adams has shown plenty of promise this year, scoring twice in four appearances, his partnership with QPR striker Lyndon Dykes is still in its infancy while Hibernian’s Kevin Nisbet is also in the early stages of his international career.
That means that, inevitably, Scotland will need to show a good deal of defensive nous to get results. Thankfully, having spent his playing days cutting about at right-back for St Mirren and Chelsea, that is one of Clarke’s specialities.
Scotland play with three at the back, though against England and Croatia it is likely to shift to an out-and-out back five. That allows Clarke to accommodate both Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, with the latter playing as a left-sided centre-back.
While they may not have a powerhouse up front, Scotland do have goals in midfield.
As he’s shown with Aston Villa over the last few seasons, John McGinn can score them from anywhere. Scott McTominay nabbed seven goals in all competitions for Manchester United last season – the best numbers of his career – while Ryan Fraser has been more prolific for Scotland than he has for Newcastle. He hasn’t scored many at international level, but Stuart Armstrong can also chip in.
Steve Clarke has worked wonders as Scotland boss
(Image: Ian MacNicol)
Having cut his teeth as Jose Mourinho’s assistant at Chelsea, Clarke had spells coaching at West Ham and Liverpool before graduating to his first managerial role with West Brom.
He had mixed success at the Hawthorns, making an excellent start before results gradually trailed off and he was sacked after a year and a half in the job.
After a brief spell at Reading and an even briefer spell working with Roberto Di Matteo at Aston Villa, he regained much of his cachet during two years at Kilmarnock in which he took them from bottom of the Scottish Premiership to third.
That earned him a crack at the Scotland job and he has certainly made the most of it, taking the national team to their first major tournament since France ‘98.
He may have a reputation as a pragmatist, but Clarke has promised Scotland will bring more to the Euros than sheer attrition. “We are going to go there and be on the front foot as much as our opponents allow us,” he said after the Luxembourg game. “We will play good teams so at times we will suffer without the ball, but when we have the ball we are going to be on the front foot and try to create chances like we did against Luxembourg and the Dutch.”
Robertson sporting Scotland's absolutely mega away kit
(Image: ATEF SAFADI/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
He’s previously railed against the idea that his career is a football fairytale, but nobody sprinkles magic dust over the Scotland set-up quite like Robertson.
His story has been told and retold endless times, but it’s hard to overstate how steep his rise has been over the last decade. Having started out with Queen’s Park in the Scottish Third Division, he went from Dundee United, to Hull City, to Liverpool, to Champions League and Premier League winner in only seven years.
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While he doesn’t cut quite the same swashbuckling figure with Scotland that he does with Liverpool, Robertson is still hugely influential for the national team.
Against the Netherlands, he assisted Nisbet’s first international goal with a trademark dinked cross from the left.
His performances could well define Scotland’s tournament. He will also captain the side, making him Clarke’s trusted lieutenant on and off the pitch.
One to watch
Billy Gilmour could be on the verge of an international breakthrough
(Image: Alex Burstow/Getty Images)
He may have had a slight injury scare after a robust challenge from Luxembourg midfielder Olivier Thill, but Billy Gilmour has assured Scotland fans that he’s “feeling okay” ahead of the start of the tournament.
That’s good news for Clarke, who will want to draw on Gilmour’s youthful energy in the middle of the park.
Brought on as a late substitute against the Netherlands for his international debut, he made an eye-catching cameo against Luxembourg before he was forced off prematurely.
While he’s unlikely to start, Gilmour could make a significant impact from the bench. Still only 19, he should bring some teenage unpredictability to an otherwise prudent and practical team.
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