Scotland: How are Steve Clarke's side shaping up for vital play-off?

Steve Clarke
Steve Clarke's Scotland lost 4-0 to Russia and beat San Marino 6-0 during October

A mauling in Moscow and a sodden skelping of San Marino leaves Scotland firmly out of contention for automatic Euro 2020 qualification, and scrabbling to salvage a third-place finish in Group I.

Steve Clarke's men sit fourth with nine points from eight games, a point behind Cyprus and 12 shy of Russia in second.

Even allowing for Sunday's torrent of goals under the cascading Glasgow rain, their goal difference remains a grim -6. Only whipping boys San Marino have a worse figure in Group I.

Where does their recent venture leave Scotland? And what kind of shape are they in approaching a vital play-off opportunity in March?

What happens next?

In the short term, Scotland have two qualifiers remaining. They play Cyprus away and Kazakhstan at home on 16 and 19 November respectively.

The immediate goal is to usurp the Cypriots, secure third place and prevent any damage to their seeding.

The overriding objective, though, is to ensure they are in the best possible condition to get through the play-offs and end what by Euro 2020 will be a 22-year wait for a major tournament finals appearance.

In that regard, Clarke will hope to have several big players restored to fitness, particularly in areas where he is not blessed with a glut of options.

The head coach has not been able to call upon Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths since taking charge in May, the forward taking time away from football to tackle mental health issues and then suffering a thigh injury.

Hearts attacker Steven Naismith may be in the autumn of his career, but the 33-year-old retains the guile, ruthlessness and leadership to be an asset to Scotland.

At the back, Kieran Tierney is now playing for Arsenal after a double hernia operation, and Scott McKenna has returned to action for Aberdeen following a hamstring problem.

What about those play-offs?

Scotland, of course, do have that second chance to reach the Euros thanks to finishing top of their Nations League group last November.

They are only two games away from ending that major finals drought. As one of the four group winners in section C of the Nations League, Scotland will - as it stands - host one of Bulgaria, Israel or Romania in the semi-final.

If they win that, they play the other semi-final winner in a single-leg final - as it stands, that is likely to be Norway or Serbia.

The venue for that showdown will be decided by a draw on 22 November. Get through that, and it's time to crack open the champagne.

Can Scotland make it?

Sticking six past San Marino doesn't really help us answer that. Nor does Scotland's recent record against teams of a similar calibre.

They lost 2-1 to Israel in Tel Aviv last year, then beat them 3-2 at Hampden. In the previous campaign, they lost to Slovakia and drew with Slovenia away, but beat both at home. That suggests a Hampden semi-final will be a significant boost.

If the play-off final is not at Hampden, then away form is a worry. Scotland haven't beaten a team ranked above them on their competitive travels since Croatia in 2013. For now, Serbia (35) and Norway (47) sit above the Scots in 52nd place.

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Former Scotland defender Willie Miller on BBC Radio Scotland

"Steve Clarke will be looking to name a settled team in the next two games, particularly defensively. You need your best players, if they are available, to build momentum.

"The next two games are really important. They are going to give us that confidence and momentum going into March. If we don't take care of them, then it can make confidence fragile again."

Former Scotland striker Billy Dodds

"The San Marino game gives us no indication of where we are looking towards those play-offs. Cyprus and Kazakhstan will. There are positives, of course, but collectively for us to be ready for those games in March, we need to know more than we saw on Sunday night."

And what about the finals?

This is where things could get seriously painful for Scotland, if they don't grasp that play-off opportunity.

Euro 2020 is being held across a dozen cities in a dozen countries, one of them being Glasgow. Hampden Park will host three group matches and a last-16 tie.

If Scotland get there, they'll be on a box-office collision course with England, assuming Gareth Southgate's men also make the finals. They'd play England at Wembley and their other two group games at Hampden.

Watching the finals unfold on their own doorstep, having had two chances to make themselves a part of it? That would be desperate.

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