The group leaders are seeking to make it five Group A wins in a row but Ketsbaia believes their passage to Germany is secure whatever happens on Friday night in Larnaca, where the stifling conditions could present a problem for Clarke’s men. “Scotland have already qualified as far as I am concerned,” said Ketsbaia. I don’t know if they will win the group, but I am sure they will qualify. We have watched all their games and they have been better than all the opposition.”
Clarke smiled when this was relayed to him. He may have other reasons to take something Ketsbaia has said with a pinch of salt having worked with the colourful Georgian at Newcastle United. But the Scotland manager was certainly in no mood for Ketsbaia’s attempt at mind games – if that is what it was. Not even the knowledge that Scotland are playing the group’s bottom team in a stadium where it is estimated over three-quarters of the 8,000 crowd will be cheering for the away team could lull Clarke into a false sense of security.
“You guys know me well enough by now, that’s not the mindset we want to have,” he said. “We want to treat every opponent correctly and want to get as many points on the table as we can. This is another opportunity for us to add to our total so far. So I don’t agree with that (Ketsbaia’s claim). We’ve been working on getting better game by game from day one. It’s something we’ve always done, just tried to improve all the time. I said after Euros 2020 that we’d improve as a group and I think we’ve done that. But I still feel there is more improvement to come. It’s good to be where we are just now. But can we be a little bit better.”
Clarke pointed to the bitter experience of Scotland’s Nations League implosion when the country was on a high after qualifying for Euro 2020. Two successive wins against Slovakia and Czech Republic had left Scotland in a good position. However, hopes of winning the group were torpedoed by two defeats in quick succession following the memorable night in Belgrade when they broke the major finals qualification hex.
Scotland have since secured promotion to League A of the Nations League but Clarke underlined football’s capacity to “bite you on the bum” at moments when everything feels upbeat. “Fans can be confident, players can be confident, but you have to be careful in football," he said. "Always respect your opponent, be humble and work as hard as you can and try to continue on the same path. That has always been my motto right through my career.”
Being careful could apply to his approach to the Elliot Anderson question. Clarke is not making any snap judgment on the player’s Scotland prospects after the Newcastle United midfielder pulled out of the squad ahead of the trip to Larnaca. Clarke had named Anderson in his pool for the first time amid reported competition from England for the player, who was born in Whitley Bay but qualifies for Scotland through a grandmother. Clarke stressed that he can only base his assessment on what the player had told him – he picked up a knock in training.
Asked if Anderson had enjoyed the couple of days he was with the squad, Clarke said: “I think he did, yes. It was a great experience for a young kid. Fingers crossed that he comes back.” The fear is that he comes back wearing England colours. On the question of whether he suspected the player had been “nobbled” by England, for whom he has made one Under 19 appearance, Clarke was unsure. “I don’t know, is the honest answer,” he said.
But he played down conspiracy theories. He pointed out that Anderson was not the only player to pull out of the squad. Motherwell goalkeeper Liam Kelly also withdrew after a couple of training sessions, to be replaced by Robby McRorie of Rangers. “He (Anderson) felt something in training and he got assessed by the medical staff," he said. "We were going to put him on a plane for five hours. You analyse, and was it worth bringing him? No, it was too long. Go back to your club, get yourself ready for your next game. I didn’t feel there was a great conspiracy, no. It didn’t feel that way to me.”