Scotland v Poland: Minor tweaks key for Gordon Strachan
|Euro 2016 qualifiers: Scotland v Poland|
|Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Thursday, 8 October Kick-off: 19:45|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Scotland and online, live text on BBC Sport website|
As always, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan flitted around his players at training, bouncing lightly on his feet as he urged and cajoled them in their drills.
A lively, irrepressible figure, he absorbed every detail of their work without ever loosening his sense of command.
In this setting - a damp, windswept patch of grass in the grounds of the Scotland team hotel - it is possible to see Strachan at his most engaged and engaging. He is animated, as if energised by boundless possibilities.
Only a small group took part in Monday morning's first training session before the final two Euro 2016 qualifying games against Poland and Gibraltar, with the rest of the players having recovery sessions following the weekend's fixtures.
The squad is based on a familiar group of core individuals but that still leaves room for intrigue.
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Every gathering involves a health bulletin, and there are already a few concerns for Strachan. Charlie Mulgrew and Kevin McDonald are out, with Graham Dorrans called up, while James Morrison is suspended for Thursday's game at Hampden.
For much of the campaign, the team has effectively chosen itself. Strachan won't deviate far from his past selections, so the likelihood is that David Marshall, Alan Hutton, Russell Martin, Scott Brown, Steven Naismith, Shaun Maloney, Ikechi Anya and Steven Fletcher will start against Poland.
Scotland need to take at least one point from the first match of this double-header, and hope the Republic of Ireland lose at home to Germany on the same night. Strachan's side would then need to defeat Gibraltar while hoping the Republic lose in Poland in their final qualifier - a sequence of results that would leave Scotland in third place and in the play-offs.
To the manager, it will feel like a time to trust in players he believes he can rely on.
"We have come to be convinced that the system we play is the best for the players that we have," said Strachan's assistant Mark McGhee. "I don't think we intend to do anything different than we've done until now, we'll still be very difficult to beat."
There are critical decisions to make in each area of the team.
In defence, Strachan must choose between Grant Hanley and Gordon Greer to play alongside Martin at centre-back. The former started the campaign as first choice, although it was Greer who played in the 2-2 draw in Poland.
Robert Lewandowski didn't score that night, although Greer was fortunate the referee did not take a more scathing view of one robust challenge in particular on the Bayern Munich striker, who has netted 12 times in his past four matches for his club.
Hanley would seem the more likely starter, though, given he partnered Martin against Germany in September.
There is also a choice to be made at left-back, where Andrew Robertson is accomplished and offers attacking width and support but where Steven Whittaker would also be a more experienced option, despite being a right-back by trade.
Graeme Shinnie is in the midst of a fine start to his Aberdeen career, but this is his first call-up and he will need to be persuasively impressive in training to play his way into the side.
The team will consist of two central midfielders and three just ahead of them, since that shape provides for a compact, narrow system when the opponents have the ball and the capacity to spread out and look for attacking spaces when Scotland are in possession.
Scott Brown will take one of the central roles, but will his partner be James McArthur - who played against Germany and has featured in all of Crystal Palace's games this season - or Darren Fletcher, who is captain of West Bromwich Albion and the most experienced figure in the Scotland squad?
With his composure, know-how and calm authority, Fletcher would be a welcome influence in a game Scotland cannot lose.
The former Manchester United player has recovered his poise but also his industry and application since coming back from illness, and has grasped the role of leader offered to him by club boss Tony Pulis.
None of this has eluded Strachan, although in selecting Mulgrew and McArthur ahead of him recently, the Scotland manager has clearly harboured doubts about Fletcher's form.
But there ought to be a place for him on Thursday.
There is likely to be a starting role for Fletcher's namesake, Steven, up front. The Sunderland striker scored last weekend, as did fellow forwards Leigh Griffiths, Chris Martin and Jordan Rhodes.
All can stake reasonable claims to play against Poland, and Griffiths in particular has been an impressive goal scorer this season, but Steven Fletcher is the most accomplished at the attributes Strachan looks for in his central striker: technical aplomb, strength, agility, the ability to play with his back to goal and the passing range to bring others into play.
"Gordon has a very clear picture of what's required from every position on the pitch in terms of the contribution to the way that the team plays," McGhee said.
"The fact that Leigh's in such form is a bonus, but can Leigh do the job that's required in the position on the day? Steven Fletcher brings a lot to the team other than goals."
Scotland are on the verge. A series of results can keep hopes of reaching Euro 2016 alive, while defeat on Thursday would abruptly end them.