Scotland v Israel: 'It doesn't matter if it's the ugliest performance in history'

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
The Scotland squad train at the Oriam in Edinburgh
Six members of Steve Clarke's squad were ruled out on Wednesday
Euro 2020 semi-final play-off: Scotland v Israel
Venue: Hampden Park Date: Thursday 8 October Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Listen live on Radio Scotland & online; text commentary on BBC Sport website & app

Another week and more examples, coming in waves now, of how crazy the football world has become.

Government summits, games forfeited and the Challenge Cup abandoned. Stuart Armstrong tests positive for coronavirus on the eve of Scotland's most significant game in 13 years and Kieran Tierney and Ryan Christie are ruled out as a consequence.

These are unpredictable times, though. Not just here in Scottish football, but everywhere. Not just off the field with testing and tracking and tracing but on the field where bizarre things are continuing to happen.

Andy Robertson's Liverpool losing 7-2 to John McGinn's Aston Villa. Scott McTominay's Manchester United getting horsed 6-1 at home to Spurs.

Everton have won seven games in a row for the first time in 33 years. Boli Bolingoli has put his sofa up for sale.external-link The president of Albania is tweeting his undying love of Celtic almost on a daily basis. Not that long ago, Bayern Munich put eight on Barcelona. Late last month Bayern lost 4-1 to Hoffenheim.

The Czech Republic were forced to field a team of relative unknowns against Scotland. The handball rule is causing chaos. VAR, in some quarters, is becoming the most bitter enemy.

John Robertson, manager of Inverness Caley Thistle, is comparing the treatment of players in Scotland to cattle while adding the rider "…and that's no disrespect to the cattle."

It's all a bit trippy. And into this field of perplexity come Scotland. Not since the Italy qualifier in the rain and hubbub of Hampden in 2007 has there been such a major moment for the national team. A win on Thursday and the country is 90 minutes away from qualification for its first major championship since the current captain was four years old. What could possibly go wrong?

This being the season of uncertainty, Steve Clarke didn't just lose Armstrong, Tierney and Christie on Wednesday, he also lost Scott McKenna, Liam Palmer and Oliver Burke. Four of that group started against the Czech Republic the last time out. Four or five of them stood a strong chance of being in the team to face Israel.

Whether it was three at the back or four, Clarke had his team formed in his head, but all of that changed on a frenetic Wednesday. Israel must have been buoyed massively by the news of the stricken Scots. Their dangerous attackers - Eran Zahavi, Mu'nas Dabbur, Manor Solomon and Shon Weissman - must be looking forward to this.

It's not like a largely full-strength Scotland terrified them the last time they played.

Scotland drew 1-1 with Israel at Hampden last month
Scotland drew 1-1 with Israel at Hampden last month

If Clarke is to repeat his formation from the Israel and Czech Republic games he needs new centre-halves to replace McKenna and Tierney. Declan Gallagher, who's not having a stellar season at Motherwell, and Ryan Porteous, a fine performer for Hibs albeit one with a worrying rashness in his defending, are his options to play alongside Liam Cooper and McTominay.

The midfielder was trialled in the position in the two previous games. Clarke seemed to think it went well. Whatever combination he goes for it's the kind of defence that makes you cross your fingers and hope for the best. Israel are no great shakes but they have some weaponry up front that's more than capable of exposing weakness.

This is a game Scotland have to win. It doesn't matter if it's the ugliest performance in history, it doesn't matter if it's secured with a lucky penalty, a daft own goal or a deflection that goes in off Lyndon Dykes' backside - winning is the bottom line. Nothing else matters.

A win gives them a shot at either Norway or Serbia in the final, it lifts the national football mood and it brings much-needed finance into clear sight.

So many major tournaments have passed and so many participation fees have been missed that you'd hate to work out how much Uefa and Fifa money the Scottish FA has lost out on since 1998. Tens of millions for the grassroots - gone.

We have a generation of youngsters who are more familiar watching England, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Wales at these tournaments than they are their own country. It's been painful. Actually, it's been pitiful and sad.

Some important players are missing, for sure, but others remain. David Marshall is a fine goalkeeper, Liam Cooper is captain of Leeds, the current darlings of the English Premier League, Robertson is one of the world's best left-backs, John McGinn has been superb for Aston Villa not least when playing a big part in the humbling of Liverpool, Ryan Fraser is on song at Newcastle, Callum McGregor and Ryan Jack are consistently excellent for Celtic and Rangers.

Even allowing for the holes that exist in the team, these are good players operating at a very good level.

We've said it before - many, many times before - but surely this is a game they will win. Nothing comes easily to Scotland but they should prevail. They have to. To think otherwise would be to sink ever lower into the trough of despondency. We've spent far too long flailing about in there already.

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