Scotland have learned the identity of each opponent they will face as the aim to reach Qatar 2022, with Denmark, Austria, Israel, Faroe Island and Moldova joining Steve Clarke’s side in qualifying group F.
The national team managed to avoid some of Europe’s biggest hitters in Monday’s draw but, as the manager noted after the teams were named, “it could have been a tougher draw but it’s also a dangerous draw”.
Scotland haven’t appeared at a World Cup since France 98 but after a long exile from major finals, Clarke and his players have qualified for Euro 2020 and hope to take that momentum into the new campaign.
But who are the teams that will pose the challenges when the qualifiers begin in March?
Looking at the top seeds before the draw, when France and Belgium and England and Spain all lay in wait, most of the Tartan Army would have leapt at the chance to be facing Denmark. And while it certainly ranks as the most low-profile of the ‘glamour’ ties available, the Danes shouldn’t be underestimated and will be Scotland’s toughest opponents.
Sitting above Germany and Netherlands in the FIFA rankings, Denmark have only been beaten by Belgium in their last 23 games and won at Wembley in October.
The Danes have reached 2020 after finishing as runners-up to Switzerland in their group but were unbeaten and top scorers in their section. As a top-level Nations League side they finished this year’s group above England and Iceland but behind world number ones Belgium.
Now under the management of Kasper Hjulmand, Denmark may not have five-star names to call upon but the squad is peppered with top level professionals including Leicester City’s Kasper Schmeichel, Spurs midfielder Pierre-Emil Hojberg, Borussia Dortmund’s Yussuf Poulsen and Inter’s Christian Eriksen.
It’s hard to envisage a path to Qatar for Scotland that doesn’t involve besting Austria over the two group games. However, the Scotland coaching staff will know that they will be up against a side that, like theirs, is feeling more optimistic after recent improvements.
Austria failed to reach the last World Cup, finishing fourth in their group behind Serbia, Republic of Ireland and Wales.
They bounced back when Euros qualification came around though, finishing way behind group leaders Poland but still comfortably ahead of North Macedonia, Slovenia, Israel and Latvia to go through as runners-up.
Their reward is a Euro 2020 group place where they will be reunited with North Macedonia and face Ukraine and Netherlands.
Bayern Munich’s David Alaba is probably the biggest name in a squad where the vast majority of players are drawn from the German Bundesliga.
Currently ranked 23rd in the world, 25 places ahead of Scotland, Austria seem to encapsulate the first impression of the group that what looks straightforward on paper might be tougher on the pitch.
UEFA’s Nations League experiment was marketed as an opportunity to replace friendlies with meaningful fixtures. For Scotland, it’s had the benefit of opening up a road to a major finals but it’s also meant that we’ve faced Israel five times in two years.
Every game has been tight but it’s not been a rivalry anyone was keen to revisit. The five games have brought two wins within 90 minutes for Israel, a win for Scotland, a draw and an epic play-off where Scotland prevailed on penalties.
Manor Solomon’s goal decided the last meeting, where Israel’s 1-0 win ended Scotland’s Nations League hopes. But we’re going to Euro 2020 and they aren’t.
Eran Zahavi’s 24 goals in 59 caps make him the danger man, Hibs keeper Ofir Marciano has proven that he can be a thorn in Scotland’s side and Celtic Nir Bitton and Hatem Abd Elhamed are among the familiar faces in a squad that the Scotland players now know very well.
After the dizzy heights of 2018 World Cup qualification when Faroe Islands finished fourth out of six teams and amassed nine points, it was a return to the basement battle in the Euro 2020 group.
An away goal kept them ahead of Malta and off the bottom of their group but a return of three points and nine defeats was a marker that the Faroes are in the group looking for progress on their own terms and don’t even dream of reaching Qatar.
Pitted against teams of a similar level in the Nations League, the Faroese went unbeaten in six games against Malta, Latvia and Andorra and clinched promotion to League C. Klæmint Olsen was the group’s top scorer but if he or any of his teammates find the net against Scotland then Clarke will be very unhappy indeed.
Being in a six-team group meant Scotland would draw a side from a level below those most people would regard as minnows but, in a group generally regarded as favourable, Scotland managed to get the tiny team that sparked feelings of dread.
Beaten last time out by Kosovo, and having only beaten Andorra and San Marino in the last six years, Moldova are the obvious candidates to finish bottom of the group and with a big number in the goals conceded column.
That said, Scotland fans will remember the qualifying campaign for World Cup 2004 when a 1-1 draw with Moldova was a massive blow to hopes of reaching Germany 2006 and proved to be the final match in charge for Berti Vogts.
Here’s hoping the 2022 campaign creates better memories.
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