Double blow hits Scotland but Clarke can be confident setback is temporary

Defeat to England is always sobering but Euro 2024 remains the target.

Double blow hits Scotland but Clarke can be confident setback is temporary

A night that promised so much ended up delivering little for Scotland as Euro 2024 momentum was checked and local bragging nights were conceded to an Auld Enemy.

As if a 3-1 defeat to England at Hampden wasn’t disappointing enough for the Tartan Army, Norway’s 2-1 win over Georgia deprived the support of the perfect consolation and means Euro 2024 qualification remains within touching distance but not yet guaranteed.

Up to this point, 2023 had been dizzying and delightful to the point of disbelief for Scotland. A clean sweep of wins in the Euro qualifiers included a rousing win over top seeds Spain, and a comeback victory over Erling Haaland’s Norway.

Scotland had a bounce in their step, a settled team, a recognisable style and were winning and scoring goals. Confidence was through the roof.

No wonder then that fans arriving at Hampden on Tuesday were in good spirits and predicting something special. If Norway and Georgia could draw in Oslo to send us to the Euros, while Scotland continued their glorious run of form with a win over England then it would be a dream double that would rank among the best nights in an international history that boasts plenty of memorable stories.

The stage was set and from then on, nothing went to plan.

The Hampden ‘friendly’ was to mark over 150 years of rivalry between Scotland and England, a head-to-head that began in 1972 with a goalless draw at West of Scotland Cricket Club in the first match played between two national sides.

The most recent match between the sides was a goalless draw at Wembley as part of a pan-European tournament that had started with 53 hopeful nations and finished with England losing to Italy on penalties.

That runners-up performance at the Euros was sandwiched between semi-final and quarter-final finishes at World Cups and underlined the fact that while England may be rivals, it wasn’t a rivalry of equals. Scotland would have to be at their best and Gareth Southgate’s England on an off day for the Tartan Army to be celebrating at full-time.

As it turned out, Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Ukraine was England’s off day and they arrived in Glasgow with a desire to get back in the groove.

Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips established a level of control in midfield, Harry Kane provided a focal point in attack or a willing addition to the fray when needed, while Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden offered incisive and dangerous intent on either side. And central to everything, Jude Bellingham underlined why he is one of the most exciting players on the planet right now.

Scotland did plenty right but couldn’t quite match the levels of their more illustrious opponents and were found wanting twice in the first half. Foden showed quick thinking to put England ahead before Bellingham was clinical to double the lead.

At any point in the century and a half that these nations have been battling it out, this contest would have been wholly absorbing for anyone lucky enough to have a ticket. But within every pocket of Scotland fans, there was at least one checking a phone to see what was happening in Oslo and in the same spell that two goals effectively settled the friendly, Norway were establishing their own two goal lead against Georgia. A support that’s been bouyant in recent months could be forgiven for being a little deflated.

The second half brought a goal to cheer them at least, England substitute Harry Maguire putting the ball into his own net after being mocked by the Scotland support as exactly the kind of hapless defender who would put the ball in his own net. Hopes were raised off a comeback but put to rest again when Kane produced a typical finish after another moment of magic from Bellingham.

Over in Oslo, hope flickered similarly when Georgia pulled a goal back and went close to an equaliser in injury tie but there was no joy to be found for Scotland fans there, either.

It was enough to have any tartan-clad diehard looking gloomily into their post-match pint. But in his post-match assessment, Steve Clarke insisted the outlook was still good despite the disappointment.

After ending a long exile from major tournaments, and then forging the team that’s impressed so much in recent months, the manager’s confidence isn’t based on blind optimism.

True, Scotland had come off second best to England, but this is an England side ranked as fourth best in the world and whose tournament record shows they are no soft touch for anyone.

True, the chance of being first in Europe to qualify for Euro 2024 looks to have gone, but there are no prizes for qualifying first. It seems almost inconceivable that Scotland won’t go on to seal a place at the finals from here.

After gradual progress under Clarke to become a solid team with plenty of positive attributes, Tuesday was a reminder that there’s still a way to go yet, and the matches to come may underline that fact.

Next up is a trip to a Spain side that’s scored 13 goals in two games and has its own ambition of winning Group A after a slow start. Then another friendly, this time away against a France team that’s second only to Argentina in the world rankings.

Clarke has always been adamant that the best way for Scotland to reach a higher level, is to test themselves against the strongest teams they can.

Even in defeat, Scotland can remain confident in who they are now: a good team that’s getting better and can learn lessons from playing together and from going up against tough opposition.

Tuesday’s defeat came in the 116th encounter between the teams. It was an anniversary celebration of a rich history between the teams and the thrilling encounters of the past.

Gareth Southgate’s side showed that the present belongs to them. Steve Clarke’s focus is very much on the future: a conclusion to the Euros campaign that would shift all attention from the local rivalry and on to the bigger stage.

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