Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Road to Russia - here we go again

I started this blog in the Autumn of 2007, partly because I needed something to do on weekdays (working as a junior doctor in A&E meant a lot of weekends and a lot of nights) and partly because of the hope generated by the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign.  Under Walter Smith and Alex McLeish, we came within a whisker of getting out of a group which contained both 2006 World Cup finalists, plus a quarter-finalist.  We beat France home and away.  And even the agonising defeat to Italy that knocked us out was gloriously heroic.  The future looked bright.

Since then, we've had Burley, then Levein, then Strachan.  Failure, failure and failure.

If we don't get to Russia, it'll be the fifth consecutive World Cup we've missed out on.  There are now Scots old enough to vote and to drink beer who have never seen us play in a major tournament.

When we were at this stage two years back, there was more than a little optimism.  Sure, we had drawn a nightmare Euro 2016 qualifying group, but the expansion of the tournament meant that even a third place would get us a playoff.  And the malaise of the Craig Levein era had been lifted by some great performances in the early months of Gordon Strachan's reign.

But that's been sucked away.  Of course we didn't even manage to get to the Euros.  And this particular failure wasn't especially glorious.  A dreadful away defeat to Georgia finished us off, but in truth we rarely played well across the ten matches.  The draw away to Poland, maybe?  Even then, we couldn't hold on to a 2-1 lead late on...and the same fate befell us in the return game.  The Irish, in contrast, scored late goals galore and came up with a remarkable four points out of six against Germany.  That spirit, that ability to keep going right to the end, seemed to elude us.  That's a big worry.

Strachan comes into this campaign in a similar position to Levein four years past.  The fans and the media are hugely sceptical of his ability to take the team forward, and it now feels like he's only one lousy result away from the axe...though the SFA's recent history suggests they'd let him muddle on for a few games afterwards before finally punting him.

It doesn't help his cause that qualification - the goal we all crave - is going to be extraordinarily difficult.  Second place in the group probably gets us a playoff.  Assuming England take the automatic spot that comes with winning it, we're likely to have to fight with Slovakia and Slovenia.  Memorably, Tam McManus told BBC Sportsound on Thursday that Slovakia "looked rubbish in the Euros", somewhat missing the point that they had at least got there.  Slovenia will be no mugs, having missed out on the Euros in a playoff.  Lithuania, also in our group, are exactly the sort of lower ranking country who we lose to at least once to.

The final side are Malta, our first opponents.  Malta, who are ranked 176th in the world (their lowest ever), who have won a single qualifier out of the last 49, and haven't won a competitive game at home in a decade.  Maybe there are no easy games in international football, and the Maltese were at least stuffy in the Euro qualifiers, losing just 1-0 in Italy.  But they certainly don't come much easier than this.

So this is must-win territory, not just because dropping points would be humiliating but because it would pretty much kill us off after a single match.

In fact, the opening trio of games will make-or-break us.  In October, we have Lithuania at home, then Slovakia away, before Wembley in November.  A 100% record from the opening two games is a must; a positive result of any sort in Bratislava then keeps us very much in it and makes anything from England a bonus.  Anything less than six points by the end of October probably leaves Strachan as a dead duck.  Seven or more, and he's bouncing into 2017 with momentum ahead of Slovenia at home in March and the return game against the Auld Enemy in June.

But it all has to start with a win on Sunday night, preferably a comfortable one.  Craig Brown's Scotland rarely hammered minnows away from home, but they usually won by a couple of goals and never looked in any danger.  A result and performance like that would be very welcome, because it would prove that the boss isn't a write-off yet.  And boy, could wee Gordon use a bit of breathing space and just a little benefit of the doubt.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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