Scotland's progress under Strachan will face stern test
Gordon Strachan would have welcomed one more training session with his squad after
It would have been an opportunity to review aspects of the game, so that the players could learn from the way that their opponents' intensity and movement enabled their victory.
It would also have drawn a line under the one performance that would have jarred with the Scotland manager. The seven games that Scotland played in 2014 brought three victories, two draws and two defeats, as well as a growing optimism that Strachan's team is progressing, and renewed vigour for international football.
|"Scotland have endured honourable failures in the past, but the feeling is that Strachan can achieve something more."|
The results are promising, since the only other defeat came away to Germany, and even then Scotland played well enough in the game. There was no sense of Strachan's side being overawed by the World Cup holders, but subsequent results have put that outcome into a different context.
This is where the 12 months can be viewed in different ways. There is no doubt that Scotland are improving under Strachan, that the team's pattern of play, resourcefulness and organisation are all more impressive under his shrewd coaching.
Scotland looked meek under some of Strachan's predecessors, but this team is resilient and confident. Even so, Group D is an unpredictable environment and for all that Scotland have performed well enough, some of the other results in the group altered the outlook.
The expectation was that Germany would be peerless, leaving Scotland, Poland and the Republic of Ireland to battle for second and third in the group, with Georgia anticipated to be tricky opponents, at least at home.
Yet the Germans lost to Poland and conceded a last-minute equaliser to the Republic, results which were setbacks for Scotland.
Strachan's side were further frustrated when Poland equalised in a 2-2 draw in Warsaw, but victory over the Republic earlier this month strengthened Scotland's hand. There are difficult fixtures ahead, and the reality remains that victories at home will be essential.
|UEFA EURO 2016 QUALIFYING GROUP D|
|Rep of Ireland||4||2||1||1||10||3||7||7|
Nonetheless, there was nothing in the Republic's limited performance at Celtic Park to suggest that a win in Dublin would not be achievable. Scotland need a result like that, or a victory over Germany at Hampden, to ensure that they prevail. The fact that it feels within reach rather than fanciful is a measure of the worth of Strachan's work.
Some players have excelled. Steven Naismith, Scott Brown, Charlie Mulgrew, Ikechi Anya and Shaun Maloney have all performed with purpose and commitment, executing Strachan's instructions while also being willing to be brave and creative in possession.
David Marshall has become a commanding figure in goal, impressively dealing with crosses and continuing to be an outstanding shot-stopper.
Andrew Robertson has also played his way to prominence and while there are still rough edges to his defensive positioning and instincts, he will benefit from Strachan's detailed coaching.
The manager would wish for at least one centre-back with more experience or playing at a higher level than Grant Hanley and Russell Martin, but the pairing has been relatively solid. On balance, the sense around the squad is of positive developments, but 2015 will be more demanding.
Scotland host Gibraltar in March, and end their qualifying group way to the same opponents in October. Progress will not survive anything other than two victories in ties that are bookending the business end of the campaign.
The trip to Dublin comes in June, while the double-header in September involves a trip to Georgia then Germany coming to Hampden. The following month, Poland are the visitors in the penultimate tie.
Strachan is a realist and he will know that the buoyant mood around the national squad is vulnerable to results.
He has generated an air of promise, and perhaps his greatest achievement so far has been restoring the joy and anticipation that Scotland supporters carry ahead of the national team's games. There was a time when despondency was the overriding emotion, but Strachan has swept that away.
It is concerning for Scotland that Poland have been so accomplished and that the Republic have - their display at Celtic Park apart - been so resilient. Strachan's side will not be inhibited by their circumstances, though.
The sense of momentum will survive the loss to England, even if it was a little chastening, and confidence in Strachan is well-established. Scotland have endured honourable failures in the past, but the feeling is that Strachan can achieve something more.