The perfect start Scotland has enjoyed in Euro 2024 qualifying has players, staff and the Tartan Army dreaming of playing in next summer’s finals.
Victory over Cyprus and a triumph over Spain in the opening matches saw optimism rocket, and the win in Norway, followed the 2-0 success against Georgia at a rain-lashed Hampden has put Steve Clarke’s side in an unimaginably strong position at the mid-point of the qualifying campaign.
A support that’s used to final day calculations, and disappointment more often than not, has grown in confidence that this time qualification might be achieved with a little bit of comfort, though nobody is naive enough to think tough tests don’t lie ahead.
The reality is that Scotland might sit at the top of qualifying Group A but three of the remaining four games are away from home, and Spain, Georgia and Norway are all in position to surpass Clarke’s side if things go awry.
The positive outlook is that it might be way more straightforward than that. Scotland could book their place at the finals on Tuesday night while playing a friendly against England at Hampden, if results go their way.
To be confirmed as finalists without much further stress, only three results need to go Scotland’s way, and one of them is firmly within their own grasp.
Before getting into the details, it’s worth looking at a snapshot of the Group A table right now.
The top two sides from the group go through to the finals and Scotland are currently sitting pretty on 12 points. That wouldn’t be enough to guarantee a place, and looking at the Euro 2020 qualifiers, the lowest points tally for a runner-up qualifying was Wales on 14 points. Other groups saw second-placed teams with 15, 16 and 17 points qualifying.
Scotland’s next game is against Cyprus in the AEK Arena in Larnaca on Friday. Let’s be optimistic and imagine a win that keeps the momentum going and puts Scotland on 15 points.
Winning the group would be a terrific boost and reward for the hard work the players and staff have put in. But second place is enough to secure the primary goal of qualifying – a 15-point tally could be enough to reach that goal if other results go our way.
That means working out a scenario where there is no possibility that two teams could leapfrog Scotland by the end of the eight games.
Spain might have had their nose bloodied with the defeat at Hampden but having only played two games so far, they could still top the group with something to spare.
Cyprus are bottom of the group right now, and a defeat in Larnaca would see them remain on zero and 15 points behind Scotland with 12 to play for.
That leaves second seeds Norway and perennial dark horses Georgia as the two sides Scotland could ensure they can’t be caught by, sealing qualification. If their best-case points tally after Tuesday night can’t top Scotland’s, a place at Germany 2024 is assured.
While Scotland are facing Cyprus, Georgia have the task of trying to take something from Spain in Tbilisi. The ideal result here is that Spain take all three points.
So by the end of Friday night, Scotland could be sitting with a maximum 15 points, while Georgia would have four points with 16 to play for. That means they would have to win every remaining game to leapfrog Scotland by the end of the campaign.
Norway, who don’t play on Friday, have already played four games, with just four points to show for it. So assuming Scotland win in Cyprus, that puts them in the same position as Georgia, needing a maximum to have any chance of finishing ahead of Clarke’s team.
Where does next Tuesday come into things? While Scotland are resuming their rivalry with England, Georgia travel to play Norway in Oslo.
In the scenario described above, both need to win all their remaining games to finish above Scotland in the final table. Cyprus are already ruled out of achieving that. So a draw between Norway and Georgia would see them on five points each, with only nine left to play for. Scotland would be guaranteed a second place finish at worst.
That’s the simple way for Scotland to qualify within the next seven days. There is another scenario, though more convoluted and less likely.
Scotland would still need to win in Cyprus on Friday but if Georgia and Spain draw then another possibility opens up.
Assuming Norway and Georgia then draw on Tuesday, then next week’s other game comes into play. If Spain fail to take maximum points in the later game then Scotland are through.
That scenario would leave Georgia on six points with nine to play for, and Spain on a maximum of five points with 12 to play for. Georgia could finish on 15 with a better goal difference than Scotland, or Spain could take 17 points with a clean sweep in the second half of their fixtures.
But with the teams to play each other on November 19, both of those things can’t happen and Scotland would be guaranteed second place at worst and qualify.
True, there are plenty of ways Scotland could still end up missing out on the finals, with a defeat in Cyprus being one way to increase the odds of that happening. Georgia could win against Spain, continue their winning run through to the end and leave Scotland out in the cold.
Norway could hit form and win their remaining games, with Spain taking 15 points from the 18 available to them and Scotland could still end up in third.
Or, arguably the most likely scenario, Scotland could pick up enough points over the next four games to render everything else irrelevant and still qualify without too many more nerves.
But the ideal way for things to unfold is possible over the next week: Scotland win in Cyprus, Spain win in Georgia, then Norway and Georgia draw.
Three not entirely unlikely outcomes that would see the Tartan Army looking out their passports and preparing for a fantastic summer next year.