Steve Clarke has admitted he faces a balancing act between managing game time for key players such as Kieran Tierney and guiding Scotland through a crucial match against the Republic of Ireland.
Should Scotland claim at least a point at Hampden Park on Saturday, it is likely that a draw against Ukraine in Poland on Tuesday would seal top spot in group B1 of the Nations League. Playing three games inside a week – Scotland beat Ukraine in Glasgow on Wednesday – raises selection issues for Clarke.
Tierney missed the latter stages of last season for club and country through injury. Jack Hendry, who started at centre-back in midweek, has played only seven minutes for his club in this campaign. Stuart Armstrong has generally been a substitute at Southampton.
“We’ve got decisions to make on a few,” Clarke said. “Kieran on minutes on the pitch, Jack on minutes on the pitch, Stuart on minutes on the pitch. Pretty much those three. So there are decisions to be made. This is only the second day of recovery so although it’s also the day before the game, we’re still recovering.
“In terms of physical preparation Ireland will have had the better week as they’ve had a clear week to prepare while ourselves and Ukraine are playing catchup. We don’t complain about it because we understand the reason we had to play the extra game against Ukraine is much more important and much more newsworthy than a football match.
“But Ireland will have had a better preparation. We’ve had a great win in midweek and we feel good about ourselves so maybe it balances itself out.”
The Northern Ireland manager, Ian Baraclough, has insisted Kyle Lafferty can still have an international future after the striker was sent
home from the squad on Friday morning.
The veteran Kilmarnock forward is the subject of a club investigation after a video circulated on social media appearing to show him using alleged sectarian language. In an occasionally tense press conference, Baraclough said a back injury had prevented Lafferty from training and also played a part in the decision to send him home.
Further questions were shut down by Baraclough, but the manager left the door open for 35-year-old Lafferty to potentially return. "It's not necessarily the end," he said. "It will be reported in some quarters as that, and it will be sensationalised, but I'm there for Kyle. The fact was that Kyle hadn't trained since Tuesday."
The Irish FA will not conduct its own investigation into the matter, leaving it in the hands of the Scottish Premiership side. Lafferty will miss Saturday's home game with Kosovo and next week's trip to Greece as Northern Ireland battle to avoid finishing bottom of their group.
Nations League: Bosnia and Georgia promoted
Bosnia and Herzegovina have been promoted to League A after a 1-0 win over Balkan rivals Montenegro, with Ermedin Demirovic scoring in first-half added time after being set up by Edin Dzeko. Bosnia have sealed top spot in Group B3, with Romania staying bottom after a 1-1 draw in Finland, Florin Tanase cancelling out Teemu Pukki's opener.
Unbeaten Georgia secured promotion from League C with a 2-0 win over visiting North Macedonia, thanks to an own goal from Bojan Miovski and another from Napoli's Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who has five goals in eight Nations League matches. Estonia were promoted from League D after beating Malta 2-1.
Clarke did, however, brush aside any suggestion he will come under pressure from club managers regarding who to pick. “My job is to win matches for Scotland,” he said. Scotland’s confidence is high after Ukraine were comfortably swatted aside, 3-0. Playing for a draw against Ireland does not form part of Clarke’s thinking. Nor does altering approach depending on Ukraine’s result against Armenia in a game which takes place before Scotland’s.
“We have to win the game,” he said. “Emotionally it is better for everybody if we can win and go to Ukraine with a win. Obviously two draws will do us. But you have to set up to win the game. We want to win, we want to win at Hampden. When we play at home we want teams to know they are coming for a tough game. I think on the back of what we did on Wednesday night, we have to back that up with another good performance and hopefully another three points. I think Ukraine will beat Armenia.”
June’s events in Dublin are a warning for Scotland. There, Ireland defeated Clarke’s men by three goals in arguably the worst performance of the manager’s tenure. Clarke cut a dejected figure at the Aviva Stadium.
“I have told the players that all we have done is secure the fact we won’t be relegated from the B league,” he said. “We can still finish first, second or third in the group. The next game is the most important one. We want to finish first. I have said that consistently. We still have a lot of work in front of us, then we can start to think about playoffs, seedings, whatever. Let’s get this game out of the way and then we can see what we need approaching the last game.”