Belgrade, Wembley and Vienna: Why Steve Clarke’s Scotland plan is proving the right one

Scotland manager Steve Clarke at full time after the 1-0 win over Austria in Vienna. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

Scotland’s own hopes were already up in smoke – or so it appeared. It all still seems so very vivid as Joakim Maehle put his side two up with the Scottish defence lying in tatters. The partisan crowd roared its delight. A mere 15 minutes had elapsed.

A third goal seemed only a matter of time. Scotland would be doing well to go in three, maybe four, down at half-time – and then who knew what horrors awaited?

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Sign up to our Football newsletter

And yet ….somehow the next goal didn’t come. Somehow Scotland hung on. Escaping Copenhagen on the back of a 2-0 loss felt like a reprieve although Scotland did improve hugely after the interval. They were the architects of their own revival.

Steve Clarke wasn’t slow to reference this challenging opening period when he spoke to broadcast media after Tuesday’s game-changing 1-0 win over Austria in Vienna. Scotland’s World Cup play-off ambitions were now back in their own hands. Clarke described the countdown to the games against Denmark, Moldova and Austria as the most “disruptive” he had ever experienced due to the number of call-offs, many of them Covid-related.

Amid such unpromising circumstances they had managed to secure six points from three tough games, two of them away to the top two seeds. Scotland also delivered successive clean sheets on the back of keeping the rampant Danes out for 75 minutes.

No wonder Clarke had a bit of attitude about him shortly after the final whistle on a balmy night in the Austrian capital.

He referenced being denounced for complimenting his players for “digging in” on a difficult night in Copenhagen. Some critics had viewed this as being too defeatist, as if he was essentially saying he was satisfied with a defeat. Of course this hadn’t been what he meant.

The arch pragmatist from Ayrshire was simply aware Austria had shipped four in the same venue earlier in the year and that Israel were due to visit.

Doesn’t look so bad now, does it? was the gist of his message after news of Israel’s five-goal battering in Copenhagen filtered through.

This has helped give Scotland a better goal difference than their play-off rivals – again, something that seemed unlikely just a few days ago. This could yet prove a pivotal factor in the final standings.

Clarke has always insisted that trying to calculate what Scotland needed from a certain set of fixtures is a futile exercise. Who could tell what might happen elsewhere? As it stands, results seem to have worked out in Scotland’s favour – a win for Israel in Copenhagen, for example, would have dampened the ardour following the Scots’ victory against Austria.

“We wanted to do what we’ve always talked about and that’s staying in contention right up until November,” said Clarke to newspaper reporters yesterday. “We want to fight for that second place.

“We’d have liked to fight for first place but the Danes have shown they’re a class act. They showed that again on Tuesday by beating a good Israel side 5-0.

“So maybe people were a little over the top with what they said about us after we went to Denmark last week. Maybe that was a little over the top and premature.

“Let’s get behind the team and let’s try and get second place in the group which takes us to a play-off. Remember, it doesn’t take us to the World Cup. But it would be progress as it would mean we’ve jumped above a team that was seeded above us. That should help the FIFA rankings and we’ll continue to get better.”

The sure, steady progress is what is marking Clarke out as the right man. No one can expect miracles. There will be setbacks. But he has a plan. He needs only to point to Belgrade, Wembley and Vienna, three difficult venues where his three-at-the-back strategy has stood firm.

Although the personnel will inevitably rotate, those stepping into the breach always seem well prepared.

“Scott McTominay has got to come back in somewhere,” noted Clarke. “But there are a few. Nathan Patterson..There are a lot of players not here…Ryan Fraser. Ryan Jack. Stuart Armstrong. Kenny McLean.

“We’re building a good squad, eh?” he added. “And everybody should be happy with that and they should be happy with the performances. We’ve just gone to a team seeded above us and we’ve beaten them.

“We’ve shown this group is capable of doing that. With experience too comes the nous. Look at the end of the game, there was no panic.”

He had reason once again to applaud Stephen O’Donnell, a player who just keeps coming back for more. “He’s hardly kicked a ball,” said Clarke. “He has suffered from Covid. Then he gives us everything.

“He was unlucky not to score. It was a good save from Daniel Bachmann who I know well from Kilmarnock. But he did well, Stephen, really well.

“When his legs went I’m then putting on Paul McGinn from Hibs and he went in there and just did his job. The same for Lewis Ferguson and Kevin Nisbet. I’m asking them to run around at the end for nine minutes and they did it great.”

Of course, it’s taken as read that there will be further trials in the four games to come.

Clarke’s side could guarantee themselves a play-off place by winning their next three fixtures. But then that would be too easy, too straightforward. Everyone knows there’s a 17-year-old rookie goalkeeper from Moldova just waiting to ruin Scotland’s day.

Get a year of unlimited access to all The Scotsman’s sport coverage without the need for a full subscription. Expert analysis of the biggest games, exclusive interviews, live blogs, transfer news and 70 per cent fewer ads on – all for less than £1 a week. Subscribe to us today