Scotland’s path to the 2022 World Cup will be laid out on Friday when FIFA makes the draw for the play-offs.
Steve Clarke’s side sealed a place in the knockout round by finishing second in their qualifying group and beat Denmark on the final matchday to ensure they’ll be seeded in Zurich, Switzerland.
The national side are now just two games away from making a World Cup finals for the first time since 1998, but could face tough opposition.
Scotland already know they will have home advantage when the semi-final is played in March, and being seeded means they will avoid big hitters such as Portugal and Italy.
The qualifiers have been split into two groups, with the six sides with the best record from the group stage being seeded, and the worst four unseeded along with the teams that earned their place through the Nations League.
Friday’s draw, which starts at 4pm UK time, will see the nations divided into three ‘paths’, with each having two semi-finals and a final, from which the three winners earn a place at Qatar 2022.
In the semi-final, Scotland could be drawn against Turkey, Poland, North Macedonia, Ukraine, Austria or Czech Republic.
The play-off semi-finals will take place on Thursday, March 24, 2022, with the finals all being played the following Tuesday.
Scotland’s potential play-off opponents
Of the unseeded sides, Turkey may feel the most unlucky to be on the wrong side of the draw. It was only goal difference that saw them finish below Wales in the ranking of second-placed teams and, even at that, they had pushed for first spot in their group all through the campaign.
In March, they started their Group F adventures with a 4-2 win over top seeds Netherlands, and pushed the Dutch throughout, with a 6-1 defeat in Eindhoven the major turning point.
Manager Stefan Kuntz won’t just blame that collapse for his side’s position though. Turkey dropped points from winning positions against Montenegro, Latvia and Norway.
A 6-0 win against Gibraltar and 2-1 win in Montenegro saw them finish the campaign in winning form, and with the likes of Caglar Soyuncu, Hakan Calhanoglu and Burat Yilmaz in their ranks, Turkey will be confident they can get beyond the semi-finals at least.
Most likely the team everyone would rather avoid, Poland finished behind England in Group I.
A surprise 2-1 defeat to Hungary ended seeding hopes following a disappointing 2021 for a team that has plenty of quality.
Their campaign started with a draw in Budapest and beating Andorra, before a 2-1 defeat to England at Wembley when Harry Maguire’s 85th minute goal sealed three points for the hosts.
The World Cup was then put on hold for Euro 2020, but Poland’s showing was not as they would have liked. A 2-1 defeat to Slovakia was a surprise opener, but a creditable 1-1 draw with Spain gave hope of progress. That set up an all-or-nothing clash with Sweden, but a 3-2 defeat saw them finish bottom of the group.
Back on Qatar 2022 duty, the team found their groove, putting four past Albania and seven past San Marino (though conceding a goal to both) before a 1-1 draw at home to England. Nine points from nine followed before the Hungary slip-up.
If Poland are to drawn to face Scotland, there’ll be one name dominating the build-up and Robert Lewandowski has shown little sign of his edge blunting with age.
The Bayern Munich striker scored eight in qualifying and would come to Glasgow hunting his 75th international goal.
Eleven Polish players found the net during the campaign and with their squad drawn predominantly from England, Germany, Italy and France, they represent a tough test.
One of the sides most of the Tartan Army would fancy, North Macedonia are ranked 74th in the world and are now without Goran Pandev, their record caps-holder and goalscorer.
Their push to reach the World Cup follows a successful campaign to make Euro 2020 where, like Scotland, they qualified via the play-offs. Three defeats in the summer were a blow, but there was enough to show that they have plenty of ability.
That was on display during the group section, where Germany ran away with first place. The Germans won nine of their ten games, but suffered a 2-1 home defeat to North Macedonia. That result was key to making the play-offs as the Lions lost away to Romania (when Rangers star Ianis Hagi scored a late winner) and drew at home to them, as well as drawing away to Iceland.
Pandev’s retirement after the Euros leaves the side without a talisman, but not without talent. Enis Bhardi, Elif Elmas and Aleksandar Trajkovski scored four each in qualifying.
Scotland would be heavy favourites but, like Steve Clarke’s team, North Macedonia are aiming to prove that reaching the Euros was no fluke.
Drawing Ukraine in the play-off would cleanly divide the Tartan Army into optimists and pessimists.
Some would point to their unbeaten group stage and be wary of any team that can face France twice without defeat. Others would take confidence that Ukraine only won two of their matches (against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Finland), drawing the other six qualifiers and failing to beat Kazakhstan in either match.
The Euro 2020 quarter-finalists have only won six of their last 18 games but seem to have a knack of getting a result when it matters.
Oleksandr Petrakov is in temporary charge after Andriy Shevchenko quit in August and has an experienced squad to draw upon, with a core of Ukraine-based players supplemented by players from top sides, including Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and West Ham’s Andriy Yarmalenko.
Familiar faces after being in Scotland’s qualifying group (and finishing fourth), Austria owe their play-off place to the Nations League.
Steve Clarke would be more than familiar with the opposition if paired with Franco Foda’s side and would take confidence that, after drawing 2-2 at Hampden in the first group match, Scotland were 1-0 winners in Vienna in a game that was key to earning a play-off place.
The Tartan Army are well aware of the players and might be happy enough to face a team that failed to live up to their status as second seeds over ten Group F games.
Another familiar foe for Scotland, Czech Republic are another side who benefited from the safety net of a Nations League play-off spot.
The Czechs would have been one of the seeded sides themselves, had Wales not earned a final day draw with Belgium that saw them take second place.
A home draw with Belgium and a 1-0 defeat in Wales shows how tight things were in a competitive group, but the Czechs have a lifeline to try and compete in what would be their first World Cup since 2006.
Regulars at the Euros in that time, they, of course, faced Scotland at Hampden just a few months ago at Euro 2020. Patrik Schick’s double ensured victory on that day and the team stunned Netherlands in the round of 16 before being beaten by Denmark in the quarter-finals.
Scotland will want to forget that run and, if paired with the Czechs, remember that Clarke’s side were home and away winners against the same opposition in the Nations League just a year ago.
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