It’s been a week of Scotland drama that’s given us something to dream about and plenty to ponder.
After the highs of beating Serbia to reach Euro 2020 and trigger wild socially-distanced celebration around the country, Scotland’s players and staff will travel home with a dose of regret that following that triumph with back-to-back defeats to Slovakia and Israel meant missing out on Nations League promotion and all the associated benefits.
As the players return to their clubs, still justifiably proud of helping the national team reach the Euros, their minds may turn to the next stage and what they have to do to make sure they play in the Euros.
Steve Clarke has a little over six months to decide on his squad and select 23 players to represent the country when they play Croatia, England and Czech Republic in the group stage. The manager named 27 players for the international camp just past, one Scotland regular was out injured before that list was drawn up and a multitude of players will now be trying their utmost to force their way into the reckoning between now and June.
The numbers are stark and it all adds up to fierce competition and tough decisions in the months to come. Everyone has an opinion on who deserves to be in and who should be out, and guessing Clarke’s thoughts on the matter will become a national pastime as summer draws closer.
Looking through the squad and those that have played in the three matches in less than a week finds certainties but also plenty of questions. As they return to domestic football, plenty of Scotland players will find they are now competing with international colleagues as well as opposition players every week from now on.
Possibly the most straightforward area Clarke has to consider will be the goalkeepers. This month’s camp saw Craig Gordon return to the squad but David Marshall’s heroics in Belgrade underlined his status as first choice and it would be surprise if anyone else was starting against Czech Republic on June 14.
Gordon was given the nod against Slovakia but looks set to be battling with Jon McLaughlin to be back-up to Marshall. It’s a battle that could get tastier if McLaughlin can oust Allan McGregor to be Rangers’ number one.
Clarke’s decision to switch to a three-man central defence, and persevere with it despite a shaky start, can be seen as pivotal to recent results and reaching the Euros. Given the usual squad formula of two players per position, plus an extra goalkeeper, that leaves plenty of space but there are plenty contenders.
Converted midfielder Scott McTominay will be in the squad, and Kieran Tierney is also nailed on. Declan Gallagher has only become a contender for a starting spot in the last year but has been at the heart of the defence in the biggest games of recent months. It would take injury or a huge loss of form for him to miss out.
England-based pair Liam Cooper and Scott McKenna look to have the edge over Andy Considine despite the Aberdeen veteran’s impressive showing since his first call-up last month. Grant Hanley’s withdrawal through injury while others showed their worth probably cemented his place as the least likely of the central stoppers.
Andy Robertson will be leading Scotland out next summer and with Kieran Tierney able to take over his left wing-back spot if needed, Greg Taylor probably can’t rely on a guaranteed spot as a deputy for the captain. Stephen O’Donnell and Liam Palmer look to have a tussle for the starting spot on the opposite side but could be vulnerable if another contender emerges.
Midfield offers a relative embarrassment of riches for Clarke to pick from and the current crop all offer enough to make their place in the squad almost assured, barring injury. Ryan Jack and Callum McGregor provide a strong engine room with John McGinn a certain starter.
Stuart Armstrong and Kenny McLean may not be first picks but have shown their value when called on and Ryan Christie’s passing, goal threat and attacking intent make him a central figure on the big occasion.
The sharp end is where the biggest questions are to be found.
Since pledging his allegiance to Scotland over Australia, Lyndon Dykes has planted a flag at the apex of the attack and declared it as his territory. The QPR front man might not be the most lethal of finishers but he poses a goal threat. Equally important is his willingness to flex muscle to draw others into play and his eager running to close down space or chase down players.
Before withdrawing from the most recent squad with injury, Ryan Fraser had shown he could dovetail nicely with Dykes and a partnership with promise will be given more chances to develop.
Oli McBurnie has endured his share of criticism, some fair and some not, and a few missed opportunities against Slovakia did nothing to persuade the doubters of his merits. Clarke’s praise for a player who gave every ounce of energy to follow his manager’s advice was telling and he’ll be given every chance to stake a claim. Likewise Leigh Griffiths, who was introduced from the bench three times this week in the hope of bringing some energy at the top end, and succeeded every time. James Forrest will return for Celtic and inevitably show he should return for Scotland.
By that reckoning, Lawrence Shankland and Oliver Burke have work to do to keep a place, while Callum Paterson’s versatility is an asset but one that Clarke might need reminded of in the months to come.
Injury or loss of form to any of the above could, and probably will, change Clarke’s thinking as he works through next year’s World Cup qualifiers and prep for the Euros. And some players may knock louder and louder on the door.
Scot Gemmill was quick to tell his Scotland Under-21 players that they should be looking to make a mark in the senior squad after their own Euros dream died this week. Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes believes his players in that squad, Lewis Ferguson and Ross McCrorie, will be at the front of that queue. Hibs’ Ryan Porteous has already been drafted into the Scotland squad from the Under-21s and will be striving to be next in line if a defensive spot opens up.
These decisions won’t just be made in the rare international breaks between now and Euros. They’ll be played out in club games in league, cup and European competition with Clarke watching on.
Club ambitions will be intertwined with international to a level the players haven’t known before and there’s a huge incentive to impress.
The international break is over but the countdown to the Euros starts in earnest now.