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Cruel, unfair, typical. Various descriptions are already attached to the scenario but one thing is clear: the build-up to one of the biggest games in Scotland’s international history has been overshadowed by the Covid-19 situation surrounding Billy Gilmour.
Steve Clarke may have wanted to focus on his team’s opportunity to go where no Scotland side has gone before – into the knockout phase of a major tournament – but the manager found himself batting away questions about coronavirus protocol on the eve of Croatia’s visit to Hampden Park tonight. Clarke can only hope there is no further, negative impact on preparations before this final Group D fixture. Clarke reported Gilmour as “very upset”, which may apply also to England’s Ben Chilwell and Mason Mount, Chelsea teammates.
Firstly, the football. Scotland – and Gilmour – excelled during the scoreless draw with England on Friday evening and Clarke has urged his players not to deliver that performance in vain, in the hope that a win over Croatia would be sufficient to earn a last-16 berth. Clarke dismissed the widely held notion that Croatia are a team past their impressive peak. Croatia sit alongside Scotland with one point from two games with Clarke’s side still to register a goal.
“You’re talking about a team that played in the last World Cup final,” Clarke said. “They have quality players but they are obviously looking for a little spark in the tournament. They are good players, make no mistake, and they are going to cause us a lot of problems. We are going to have to play our best game. We are going to have to play as well as we can to get the result we want.
“They always qualify for tournaments, have top, top players in their team and we need to respect them as we do all our opponents. Then we have to go out there and find a way to beat them because, as much as they want to make it to the knockout stages, so do we.”
Clarke confirmed Gilmour’s showing against England meant he would have started against Luka Modric and co. The Chelsea midfielder will watch the completion of the group phase isolated in a hotel room.
“What we have to do now is make sure that Billy’s good performance against England doesn’t go to waste,” Clarke added. “The players don’t need any added motivation but this is a very tight knit group. They know if we can progress far enough into the tournament then they can welcome Billy back into the squad. That would be fantastic.”
Stuart Armstrong, who replaced Gilmour after 75 minutes at Wembley, would be the favourite to take the youngster’s midfield place. Yet that is Scotland’s deepest area of talent. Clarke has various options. “You don’t get the togetherness, the camaraderie and the type of team performances that we’ve been getting without effort from the lads who are not getting as many minutes on the pitch,” Clarke said. “They’ve got to be the opposition when you line up at training. They’ve got to be the ones who drive the guys who are starting. It’s easy to be a starter, it’s not so easy to be a squad player and the mentality of these squad players and the strength in our group is there for everyone to see.”
Scotland’s manager was not of a mind to discuss how Gilmour contracted the virus. Scepticism will now surround, for example, the period between a training camp in Spain and Scotland’s arrival in the north-east of England.
The Scotland squad were allowed to visit family during that 48-hour window. Earlier, John Fleck had been consigned to Spanish isolation because of a positive Covid test.
Clarke is adamant Scottish FA policies and checks are as stringent as can be reasonably applied. The squad has been housed in two planes when moving between their north east of England hotel base and matches.
“We follow all the protocols,” said Clarke. “We wear our masks at the right time, we wash our hands all the time and have bottles of sanitiser around the place. We do everything we can within the context of a global pandemic and a virus that you can’t see. People all over the world have caught this virus so it’s not something you can legislate for. What I don’t want to do is sit here and talk about catching Covid. I want to talk about playing Croatia. The whys and wherefores regarding how he caught it? That’s not up to me.”
Croatia were uneasy about Scotland’s relationship with coronavirus even before the Gilmour news. A plan for Zlatko Dalic’s team to have a temporary home in St Andrews during the group stage was scrapped amid Croatian concern about Scottish government rules regarding the pandemic.
Croatia feared umpteen of their squad could be forced out of matches if even a single player tested positive while in Scotland. Dalic and his players have, therefore, flown in and out of the UK for their three fixtures.
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“All of them are afraid but nonetheless, we have to play, concentrate on the game and forget everything else,” said Dalic. “That’s how the situation is for this entire Euros.
“All of us have been negative until now, we are taking all the precautions and implement all of the measures. But we just have to see what happens.
“Every third day we go through the tests, there is psychological pressure and uncertainty. So we are afraid something would happen, they test positive and we all end up isolating and having those serious issues.
“We are concerned but we have to do this match, we have to play and try to win the three points.”