Slovakia v Scotland: Crunch time for Gordon Strachan and his team

Scotland manager Gordon Strachan
Strachan finalising his plans for the World Cup qualifier in Slovakia
World Cup Group F qualifier: Slovakia v Scotland
Venue: Anton Malatinsky City Arena, Trnava Date: Tuesday, 11 October Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Scotland, online, mobile, the BBC Sport app, live text on BBC Sport website

It is early in the World Cup qualifying campaign for a defining moment, but the Stadion Antona Malatinskeho in Trnava will be the backdrop to an occasion that will shape the mood of Gordon Strachan's remaining time in charge of the national team.

Drawing at home to Lithuania on Saturday has clarified and sharpened a sense of frustration among Scotland fans.

Hopes of finishing second in Group F seemed to diminish sharply when the visitors took the lead, but a late equaliser and Slovakia's ongoing failure to match their performances with their status as the second seeds have kept Scotland hanging on grimly to their ambitions.

Strachan insisted, since the general expectation, given their qualifying record, was that England would top the group, that nothing has changed for his side. The most likely target remains second place and potentially a role in the play-offs, but other aspects have, critically, altered.

Scotland built up hope in the first half of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign only to surrender it meekly in a way that caused doubt and weariness to take hold but not overwhelm supporters.

Looking laboured for spells against Lithuania as they dropped two points has intensified that view and Strachan needs to deliver a win against Slovakia, or at least a convincing display in a draw, to keep unrest at bay.

Pressure game

Both sides will feel vulnerable to their flaws in Trnava. Slovakia carry a baggage of recriminations and poor form, having failed to score in their last four matches and misplaced the dynamism that drove them to Euro 2016. They too are looking for redemption and the home fans will expect them to be assertive and bold.

That might encourage Scotland, who are capable of hitting on the break with pace and danger with the likes of Robert Snodgrass and Matt Ritchie on the flanks. Both teams, though, will approach the game knowing that a win is the only result that will keep second place within straightforward reach.

Robert Snodgrass
Can Snodgrass impose himself on the game after a poor showing at Hampden?

"It can help," said Scotland captain Darren Fletcher of Slovakia's likely attacking intent. "Sometimes it's a little easier than trying to break down an opposition who sit in, are hard to beat and frustrate.

"Hopefully there will be spaces for us, but at the same time, they've got a lot of quality and we should not underestimate them. They've got quality players and it will be a tight game, hopefully one that we can find a way to win.

"Slovakia are under pressure, so it's up to us to take advantage of that."

Scotland need a performance and result that will establish their credentials, not leave them - and the manager - being further questioned.

Ins and outs

Fletcher is a doubt for the game after injuring his thigh against Lithuania, but the captain hopes to pass a fitness test that will allow him to play his role as the heart and mind of the Scotland midfield.

Strachan has other individuals to consider, though, as he plans for a game that is testing his resourcefulness, with Slovakia changing formations and personnel dramatically in recent matches.

James McArthur has been impressing for Crystal Palace during the past month and he brought energy and a sense of determination to Scotland's play when he replaced Fletcher on Saturday.

Strachan thinks highly of Barry Bannan too and all three could be accommodated if Strachan deploys a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Fletcher holding - and looking to curtail the poise and menace of Napoli's Marek Hamsik.

Darren Fletcher and James McArthur
Fletcher (left) did not participate in Monday evening's training session

Leigh Griffiths is Scotland's most reliable finisher, but a game primarily spent on the counter attack may not suit the Celtic striker, at least initially.

Chris Martin has started the first two games of the campaign, but Steven Fletcher is the better all-round centre-forward and would best serve the likely game plan.

These are significant decisions for the manager, but there is no way to markedly improve the quality of the team. It is the psychology that can be influenced more tellingly.

When Scotland needed to win, against Georgia in the last campaign and against Lithuania on Saturday, the team seemed wary of itself, uncertain. Assertiveness comes more freely when the odds are against the players.

Strachan's time

The manager has led Scotland into 18 competitive matches and won eight of them, although he can take some encouragement from a record of nine away games that has delivered four wins (albeit one in Malta and one in Portugal against Gibraltar).

Wins in Croatia and Macedonia, at the beginning of Strachan's reign, were solid statements of intent - and another is needed now.

The strong characters and personalities in the squad need to deliver for their manager now, the likes of Fletcher and Snodgrass, not only in their individual performances but also in drawing the best out of their team-mates.

Qualification is at stake but also how the support view Strachan. Doubts have gathered; the manager needs them to be dispersed again.

"If we could win here then it would be massive," Fletcher said. "Even not losing would put us in a strong position in the group with plenty of games to play. We're not ruling ourselves out.

"We're still in this group and still fighting. There's still a long way to go and we still believe in ourselves."

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