Scotland Prevail In Must Win Game Against Cyprus; Fall To Belgium In Brussels
Things went pretty much as expected. Scotland's latest Euro 2020 qualifying fixtures have now been completed and the record books will show a home victory over Cyprus followed by defeat in Belgium. While these results were expected by the majority of observers the two fixtures allowed new Scotland manager Steve Clarke to work with his squad for the first time and gave fans an opening glimpse of what to expect under Clarke moving forward.
It would have been an absolute pleasure to begin this column discussing a famous away win, or even a draw, in Brussels before working back to last Saturday's test against Cyprus. It wasn't to be though so I will take a look at things in chronological order and try to offer some analysis along the way.
Over thirty thousand fans made their way to Hampden Park on Saturday for Clarke's first game in charge. This emphasised the boost making the change in manager gave to the fan base, a record low crowd for a competitive game was predicted had the SFA kept Alex McLeish in charge. The Cyprus game also came with a bit of pressure - it was a must win for Scotland.
A combination of this and the players only having seven training sessions with their new manager saw Scotland start the game in a nervous manner. They were also passive when Cyprus had the ball, allowing them plenty of possession. This suited the slow, passing style of the visitors and enabled them to settle in to proceedings. After 25 minutes or so of this pedestrian fare Scotland captain Andy Robertson decided to take the game by the scruff of the neck and started driving his team forward. Robertson attacked relentlessly from left back for the remainder of the night. Often intercepting opposition passes Robertson would typically leave a couple of Cypriots in his wake before linking up with Ryan Fraser on the left hand side as the Scots tried to unlock the Cyprus defence.
Despite working favourable positions on several occasions as the game approached half-time the final ball was just not clinical enough. Indeed Pardo, the Cyprus goalkeeper, was relatively untroubled bar having to get down at his near post to beat away a Charlie Mulgrew free kick.
The second half started with Scotland playing at a higher tempo but this didn't produce an immediate result and again Cyprus were able to regain their comfortable foothold in the game - continuing to enjoy long periods in possession therefore defusing what Scotland were trying to do. Scotland only looked dangerous whenever Robertson produced one of his driving runs from defence.
It was no surprise then when it was the captain who opened the scoring for Scotland. This time Robertson made his move forward as the ball was won centrally. John McGinn played a square ball to the rampaging full back and Roberson took one touch before firing a 20-yard left-footed rocket way beyond the reach of the diving Pardo. It was one of the better goals Scotland have scored in recent times and a deserved reward for Robertson on a personal level.
The goal arrived on the hour mark and again the game went into a bit of a lull. Scotland didn't want to risk losing the lead but without the insurance of a second goal Cyprus remained in contention.
Time was ticking down when the visitors got themselves level. Their reply came from a corner. It was the type of goal that shouldn't be conceded at international level. A flat ball into the middle was headed into the net by Kousoulos from seven yards out. He was unmarked and unchallenged. Only three minutes remained.
Fortunately this was enough time for Scotland to grab a winning goal. The move originated down the Scottish left hand side as Ryan Fraser put a quality ball into the middle. Substitute Oliver Burke rose majestically and headed towards goal. The ball beat Pardo but struck the post before coming straight back to Burke. He dispatched it into the empty net and you could hear the relief coming from the Hampden Park stands. Scotland would hold on for a 2-1 win.
There was a lot for Steve Clarke to unpack afterwards. The new manager spoke about a number of aspects of the game in the aftermath: "Great character, great resilience from the players" (on getting the winner so soon after Cyprus scored); "There was a lot of good things mixed in with one or two elements that we have to get better at" (on the overall performance); "We knew going into the game that we needed to win and that brings an added pressure" (on the qualification situation); "We gave the players lots of information and perhaps some of it was taken too literally" (on some of the passive Scottish play); "We will need to view the tapes and work to make sure that we don't concede like that ever again" (on the poor defensive setup that allowed Cyprus to score); "There won't be any physical training sessions before Tuesday, just walking through tactics and plenty of film study to give the players all the information they need to do as well as possible against Belgium" (on how to prepare for Belgium in a limited amount of time).
These comments alone are reason for Scotland fans to be confident as they clearly show the Scotland setup to be far more professional than it was under the previous regime.
Being more professional and organised was a must when heading to Belgium to face the team ranked as the best in the world by FIFA. They have world class players in every position with a bench full of backups of very similar standard to be called upon if needed. It was a huge blow then to hear that Scotland's only player who could perhaps be considered world class, Andy Robertson, would not be available to play due to a hamstring injury. As if this game wasn't going to be difficult enough.
Robertson's replacement, Greg Taylor of Kilmarnock, acquitted himself well on his international debut and in the main Scotland turned in a disciplined, structured performance. The gulf between Belgium and Scotland is large at the moment though so even with a number of positives that can be taken from the game, the final score of 3-0 to Belgium was probably a reasonable reflection on the game.
The pattern of the game was Belgium advancing forward while Scotland tried to remain compact and difficult to break down. This was working until first half injury time when a split second of hesitation in defence allowed Eden Hazard to clip a perfect ball onto the head of Romelu Lukaku who made no mistake from close range. Getting in at half time at 0-0 would have been ideal for Scotland. As close as that was to happening the goal should serve as a lesson that the best teams make the most of every second available to them.
Lukaku doubled his tally in the 56th minute, tapping in after Scotland goalkeeper David Marshall could only parry De Bruyne's shot into his path. This effectively ended the game as a contest. Scotland perhaps should have pulled one back when a break up the field resulted in central defender Scott McKenna finding himself one on one with Thibaut Courtois. The Belgium goalkeeper thwarted McKenna and between them James Forrest and Oliver Burke were unable to take advantage of the rebound. Kevin De Bruyne added some gloss for Belgium in stoppage time with a beautifully curled right foot shot from 20 yards which found the bottom corner.
In truth Belgium away would be a tough assignment for any team on the planet at this moment in time. They can hurt you from almost anywhere on the park and although it is early I am tipping them now to win next summer's European Championships.
From tournament winners to the question of will Scotland qualify or not? There are six games left in Group I and it looks like it could be a fight between Scotland and Russia to see who finishes runners up to the Belgians. Russia are currently in the driving seat but Scotland have home and away fixtures to come against them. The qualifying campaign will conclude over the international dates in September, October and November. Should Scotland fail to claim second place there is the backup of the Nations League playoff place they have already secured.
Steve Clarke remained optimistic with his comments despite the Belgium defeat: "They want to get better. I think we have shown with the work we have done in this camp that there have been improvements, but there has to be more. We have to be better with the ball when we have it. We have things to work on but the overall feeling I have is that we have grown a little bit as a squad of players already and in the next camp we should grow again."
Hopefully some of the players who were injured for these games will be available for September's home games against Russia and Belgium. It feels like Clarke is already trying to build a club like atmosphere within the Scotland camp. It would be nice if this could be achieved and players were itching to be involved instead of looking for any excuse to pull out.
Overall the timing of these two games gave Steve Clarke an opportunity to meet the players and get some of his ideas over to them. Small signs of improvement in terms of actually having a game plan and the players looking a bit more confident bode well for the future. The more he works with them the more Steve Clarke's ideas will help this group of Scottish players grow into a better team.
Next up Russia visit Hampden on September 6. It'll be another must win game - but we're used to that by now.