Scotland prepared for all-or-nothing Slovenia tie as hopes hang by a thread

Roddy Forsyth
Scotland are running out of games to push towards qualification - PA

It would be a terribly dispiriting irony for Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squad if time should be called on their World Cup qualifying campaign on the same day that the clocks go forward. Yet the brutal truth is that unless they beat Slovenia at Hampden Park on Sunday night the Scots’ fragile hope of reaching the finals in Russia next year will have evaporated by the halfway stage of their Group F campaign.

The Tartan Army foot soldiers have already endured the indignity of being forced to watch from their couches as the four other nations from these islands took part in the Euro 2016 festivities in France last summer and even a bout of schadenfreude induced by England’s collapse against Iceland could not compensate for the pain of exclusion in such circumstances.

The Euro campaign at least went as far as the last kick of the final significant match, the 2-2 draw with Poland at Hampden, when Robert Lewandowski’s injury time equaliser ended Scotland’s hopes in cruel fashion.

The current attempt to end a 19-year-long exile from the finals of a major tournament stalled after the first game, a misleadingly encouraging 5-1 thrashing of Malta on September 4. Since then, Scotland’s sole reward has been a 1-1 home draw with Lithuania, which was followed by consecutive 3-0 defeats away to Slovakia and England.

Moreover, the win in Malta is the Scots’ single victory in a stretch of seven games. The statistics which allow hope to flicker are that only six points cover five teams in the Group F table and that Scotland have never lost to Slovenia, having won one and drawn two of their three meetings.

It is also true that Strachan’s teams have scored in each of their 11 most recent home games, but they face a Slovenia side whose defensive record is sound, with only a single goal conceded in the last six matches. The lesson of hard experience is that the Scots rarely prosper when required to lay siege to an obdurate defence and that their effectiveness drops noticeably with the size of the crowd, a factor likely to come into the reckoning if the stadium is, as expected, only half full.

Since their outing in Malta, Scotland have scored only once but have conceded seven goals in the qualifiers and the 1-1 friendly draw with Canada – 117th in the Fifa rankings – at Easter Road on Wednesday yielded little evidence that the trend is about to be reversed against a Slovenia side who have outperformed their status as 58th in the ratings.

Ikechi Anya (right) celebrates Scotland's equaliser against Canada with debutant team-mate Tom Cairney Credit: Ian MacNicol/Getty

Strachan will at least be able to call upon a Celtic contingent in the form of Craig Gordon, Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong and James Forrest and it would not be a surprise if he started with all four, the latter two probably lining up alongside Matt Ritchie as a midfield trio. Slovenia are not blessed with an overabundance of star names but they have the likes of Josep Ilicic, Kevin Kampl and Robert Beric, who play for Fiorentina, Bayer Leverkusen and St Etienne respectively.

Slovenia’s strength is their team spirit, which earned them a 1-0 victory over Slovakia and a goalless draw against England in Ljubliana in their October double header. Scotland, by contrast, need to shake off the frustration of failure to make Euro 2016, a factor which has been more significant than it should have been, according to the Norwich City defender, Russell Martin.

Gordon Strachan's job may be on the line Credit: Ian MacNicol/Getty 

"We played so well for the majority of the campaign, and one result probably cost us," he said, referring to the Scots’ defeat by Georgia in Tbilisi in September 2015. "That was disappointing for people and tough to take and we maybe haven't quite got over that quickly enough, but performances haven't been terrible.

"We have been one or two passes away, where it was clicking earlier on in the last campaign. We have been a fraction off it, but there's no one reason. If there was, we would have rectified it.

"We are working hard. Everyone still believes in what the manager wants to do. The most important thing is, regardless of what's gone on in the last three or four games, if we win on Sunday, we are right back in the mix and have a right chance of moving on up the group and qualifying."

Team picker | Who should get the nod for Scotland against Slovenia?

As for the inevitable speculation about Gordon Strachan’s future as Scotland manager – or otherwise, in the event of a defeat – Martin said: "Everyone enjoys working with him, everyone likes him, and we need to make sure we show that and put in a performance to make sure there are no question marks after Sunday about where we are going and where we are heading in the campaign."

Scotland (probable): Gordon; Anya, R Martin, Mulgrew, Tierney; D Fletcher, Brown; Forrest, Armstrong, Ritchie; S Fletcher.

READ MORE ABOUT:

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes