One way or another, this match is one that will be talked about for a long, long time.
Steve Clarke, his coaching staff, the Scotland players, the fans who normally travel or pack out Hampden for big internationals, everyone is fervently hoping that when we talk about “the Serbia game” in the weeks and months to come it’s to talk about a watershed moment when years of misery gave way to giddiness, optimism and anticipation of being back in the big time when Euro 2020 starts next summer.
It’s one game with one huge prize. One match that can instantly diminish the painful experience of qualification campaign after qualification campaign.
Some of them have ended in abject failure, some in ‘glorious defeat’. This one could join those ranks but every effort is to be expended to make sure that isn’t the case.
With the challenge of ending the men’s national team’s 22-year wait for a major finals at their door, the Scotland players could be forgiven if they felt the weight of hope and expectation heavy on their shoulders.
Instead, all indications from the Scotland camp this week show almost the opposite state of affairs. Happy, positive and confident, though not overconfident, the squad are reaping the benefits of momentum as they face their date with destiny.
This moment, and the momentum, couldn’t be counted on when Steve Clarke took charge 18 months ago. Alex McLeish had helped secure the lifeline of a play-off place but direct qualification for the Euros was as good as gone when he left the hot seat.
Clarke oversaw the last matches of that campaign and endured some pain, with back-to-back 4-0 cuffings from Belgium and Russia the most chastening, but slowly saw his methods take hold. A trio of wins over San Marino, Cyprus and Kazakhstan may not have something to make all of Europe sit up and take note, but it was a start and showed some evidence of improvement.
The pandemic disrupted progress like it disrupted everything else and when football started again there were no guarantees the progress would continue, with a run of tricky fixtures ahead and one, the play-off semi-final, standing out above the rest.
Positive result after positive result was delivered but, just as importantly, questions were answered within the team. Not every performance was stellar, some were frankly ropey but over time Clarke’s team has literally taken shape. A three-man defence has moved from being an interesting and shaky experiment to being arguably the most solid option available. The team look far from a soft touch now, and in Lyndon Dykes a dependable option at the apex of the attack has been found.
A tense play-off semi-final overcome after a penalty shoot-out win that underlined the new-found confidence, and some Nations League fixtures won, Scotland go into their biggest game in over a decade with an unbeaten run of eight games. The last international camp brought three wins and three clean sheets. No wonder the players are relaxed and looking forward to the challenge.
While taking his turn to face the media this week, defender Scott McKenna said that the calmness in the squad partly came from the manager, with Clarke decidedly not the type to get swept up in pre-match hype.
That much was evident on Wednesday when the Scotland boss said: “For us, it’s business as usual. It’s a game of football and we know that we can only win or lose. We know the magnitude of the prize at the end of it. But ultimately we need to rely on the principles and the way that we’ve been playing in recent matches.”
McKenna was also asked about the myriad threats that the opposition squad would pose and, without being dismissive, his answer amounted to “the manager will have a plan”.
He’ll need one. Serbia earned their place in the play-off after stunning a Norway side most assumed were on their way to the final, if not the Euros themselves.
Sunday night tales that their Serie A contingent wouldn’t be available proved to be unfounded (aside from Filip Djuricic) but served as another reminder that Serbia have a notable Serie A contingent.
Lazio’s Sergej Milnkovic-Savic, Inter’s Aleksandar Kolarov and their fellow Italian-based talent aren’t the only stars. Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ajax’s Dusan Tadic, Crystal Palace’s Luka Milivojevic and Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic could all pose problems.
If Scotland go in with momentum after their recent run, you can’t deny Serbia will be on a high after their exploits in Oslo.
They are a dangerous side with home advantage and they reached the last major tournament they tried to qualify for.
But Scotland fans who have discovered an optimism they thought lost long ago will point to factors that may favour Clarke and his players.
Home advantage in the age of Covid isn’t all it used to be. And Serbia’s home record isn’t enviable. Their last win as hosts was a year ago when Luxembourg were beaten 3-2 and they only have one win from their last four games in Serbia.
Scotland are a team on a run, aware of the prize and highly motivated. Midfielder Kenny McLean made it clear just how much it means when he spoke on Monday.
“I think it’ll be the highlight in most of the boys’ careers if we can get back to the good old days when we got to major tournaments,” he said. “We’ve got the squad, there’s no doubt about that.“
The clash at the Rajko Mitic Stadium might not be pretty and it might be drawn out, with the prospect of extra time and the torment of penalties a very real possibility.
The result is all that matters though. Win handsomely or win ugly, win luckily or deservedly. Reach Euro 2020 and “the Serbia game” will be one that brings a smile to every supporter’s face and ends a wait that has been too long by far.