“It’s a big night. It feels like a step forward.”
That was Steve Clarke’s assessment of the 2-0 win over Spain at Hampden in March. Since that “step forward” his Scotland side have been on a steady march towards Euro 2024.
The five wins from five games have brought plenty of joyous moments but that victory over Luis de la Fuente’s side remains the high point.
Clarke’s team showed energy, commitment, discipline and no shortage of ability in a statement win that made it clear that they were intent on qualifying and more than capable of achieving their aim.
Since that spring night, Scotland have remained at the top of Group A with a string of victories but as the sides prepare to meet again, it’s what Spain have done in recent months that will be occupying Clarke’s thoughts.
While the Tartan Army were celebrating the comeback win against Norway and the victory over Georgia, Spain’s support was watching their team in the Nations League finals. European champions Italy were knocked out in the semi-finals before a Croatia side that finished third in the World Cup were seen off in the final.
There was a sense that Euros qualification was put on hold while there were bigger fish to fry and that putting right the mistake against Scotland and getting to grips with the group would be dealt with after the summer.
Last month’s double-header brought six points and a great deal more. Georgia were dismantled in Tbilisi, Spain winning 7-1 with Alvaro Morata scoring a hat-trick. Yamine Lamal was brought on to become Spain’s youngest ever player, 16 years and 57 days old. By the end of the game he was also the youngest goalscorer in Euros history.
Cyprus were then smashed 6-0 with five different scorers and Spain are going in to the game against Scotland with a recent European title, a run of wins, goalscoring form and strength in depth. Add an appetite for revenge and it’s easy to foresee a difficult night in Seville.
Clarke has said that his side need to play against Europe’s best regularly if they are to reach the next level and Thursday night’s test falls between friendlies against England and France that can help to achieve exactly that. But the Spain game isn’t about growth or learning. A place at the Euros has still to be nailed down and getting a point to achieve that objective is the only thing on anyone’s mind when the teams take to the pitch at Estadio La Cartuja.
The absence of Kieran Tierney will make that job more difficult, though Clarke says the team has solutions in their flexibility and within the squad. The defeat to England last month may have taken a little of the swagger from the team but focus and belief haven’t been lacking at any stage and the win in Norway showed the team can handle tough opposition away from home.
Speaking to newspapers last week, Clarke emphasised the difficulty of the task against Europe’s top sides. “You have to do everything right,” he said. “When we played Spain in March, we pretty much did everything right. We followed the tactics we had on the night and they worked well for us.”
In other words, perfection will be demanded from the players Clarke calls upon.
An improving team has delivered win after win with the prize of a Euro 2024 place in their sights. The memory of Scott McTominay’s Hampden double can give them belief in their toughest challenge yet.
Another big night is needed, and this step forward would be the biggest of Clarke’s tenure so far.
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