World Cup 2018: Slovenia forlorn before Scotland finale

Dele Alli and Bosjan Cesar
Bosjan Cesar and Slovenia held England to a 0-0 draw earlier in the campaign
World Cup qualifying: Slovenia v Scotland
Venue: Stozice Stadium Date: Sunday, 8 October Kick-off: 17:00 BST
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website

The difference between Saturday, 8 October 2016 and Sunday, 8 October 2017 may be only 12 months, but for the Scotland national team it feels like a lifetime.

A year ago Gordon Strachan's side required a last-ditch equaliser at home to Lithuania, before being taken apart three days later by Slovakia in Trnava.

But on Sunday they are facing a Slovenia team, against whom they jump-started this entire World Cup qualifying campaign back in March, with a realistic chance of sealing an unlikely play-off berth.

Slovenia are all but out of contention for second spot, having to beat the Scots but also needing Malta to win in Slovakia, the prospect of which even the Slovenian press are describing as a miracle.

Understandably so, given the Maltese have only ever won two World Cup qualifiers and avoided defeat in 11 of the 98 they have played.

It is for that reason too that only three points in Ljubljana will do for Scotland and the 5,000 or so Tartan Army supporters that have made the trip.

The Slovenia side who arrived in Glasgow in March, beaten by Chris Martin's late goal, were in a good place.

They were unbeaten in the group, had defeated Slovakia and held top seeds England to a draw. That added up to a four-point advantage over Strachan's men before that clash at Hampden.

Srecko Katanec
Srecko Katanec's second spell in charge of Slovenia looks set to come to an end after Sunday

Since Martin plundered a deserved three points for the hosts, the respective campaigns of the two sides have swung in opposite directions.

Having begun the group with much optimism, the Slovenian national team is at a crossroads.

The late defeat by England in London on Thursday, just as Martin Skrtel was putting through his own Slovakian net to give Scotland victory at Hampden, was enough to move much-criticised Slovenia coach Srecko Katanec to announce he will be stepping down from the role after five years.

The former Sampdoria midfielder did so in his own post-match interview on national television, having failed to take his nation to a fourth major finals, before also ruling out any prospect of the "miracle" the local press talked of.

Their first two appearances, at Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, came under his stewardship in his first spell in charge of the side.

And for what will realistically be his final match in charge, he will be without the services of two of his most important lieutenants in Nantes midfielder Rene Khrin and the vastly experienced number 10 Valter Birsa, who plays in Serie A with Chievo having previously been at AC Milan.

Rene Khrin, Miral Samardzic, Bostjan Cesar and Valter Birsa
Rene Khrin (far left) and Valter Birsa (far right) are unavailable for Slovenia on Sunday

Both are suspended.

Despite having one of the world's top goalkeepers in Jan Oblak and the mercurial talents of Atalanta's new £5m signing Josip Illicic, Katanec himself believes that the Slovenian national team faces a "difficult period of renewal and rejuvenation".

"We know that we're in a very tough position," said captain Bosjan Cesar, who will earn his 100th cap against the Scots.

"But as long as any chance exists, we have to believe. We must first beat Scotland at home and hope for the best.

"We have to do everything in our power to win against them.

World Cup qualifying Group F

"We want to do it because it's the last game of the group but also for our coach."

Defender Cesar is right to feel confident about Slovenia's chances; they are unbeaten on their own patch in this campaign without conceding a single goal.

They have also lost just one of their past 10 games on home soil.

In 2005, Scotland won 3-0 in Slovenia at the end of a fourth consecutive failed attempt to reach a major finals.

They find themselves back here at the end of campaign number 10, but the stakes are infinitely higher.

That Slovenia are already on their haunches, as they were that night 12 years ago, bodes well for Strachan's men.

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