Andrew Flint –
Scotland vs Russia – Friday, September 6, 19:45 BST/20:45 CET – Hampden Park, Glasgow – Scotland
There has never been a better time for Scotland to make a long overdue return to a major tournament. The last time Scotland featured in a World Cup or European Championship finals, central midfielder Scott McTominay wasn’t even born. Euro 2020 will feature almost half of UEFA’s member nations again, as well as featuring the brand new pathway from the inaugural UEFA Nations League. Under Alex McLeish they finished top of their three-team group in League C, meaning they have qualified for next spring’s playoffs to reach the finals. That is only a chance of reaching the finals; the only way to guarantee passage is to finish ahead of either Russia or Belgium in the first two places in this qualification group.
The McLeish stint was defined by an odd sense of gloom, confusion and inertia despite their brief success in the Nations League. “There was a lot that happened during the [2018 World Cup qualification] campaign that left me scarred,” West Ham winger Robert Snodgrass said this week. “I got on well with Alex [McLeish]…it’s just certain things were done that baffled me.” After seven defeats in just 12 games in charge, the 3-0 reverse against a Kazakhstan side that had won just one competitive match in almost three years previously was the final straw. According to the Tartan Army Sunshine Appeal’s Clark Gillies, who has followed Scotland home and away for 30 years, there is cautious optimism.
“I would say spirits are high with the new manager,” he told Futbolgrad Network, “but everyone is still certainly grounded just now as we have been here so many times before. There is still the air of McLeish and what he left behind in the air.” As if a reminder is needed of what is at partly stake at Hampden Park, the fact the iconic venue will host four games at the finals should sharpen the minds of the Scottish team. Oli McBurnie apologised for some off-the-cuff remarks about the national team to his teammates earlier this week and feathers were left unruffled; a united front will be needed to take on a resurgent Russia.
If there’s one thing that Stanislav Cherchesov cannot be accused of it is of being weak in shaping the squad. The superficial glitz of World Cup success last summer is backed up with the brightest array of young talent Russia has enjoyed in quite some time; so much so that last season’s Russian Premier League top goalscorer Fedor Chalov can’t make the senior squad. That’s not to say there has been widespread approval of his decisions. Chalov has been dealt a relatively raw deal for the senior side given his immense promise, with just two caps to his name, and there is certainly an element that is frustrated on the young CSKA Moscow forward’s behalf.
Cherchesov’s vision involves a blend of experience and youth. Captain Artem Dzyuba has recovered from his exhaustion from a year ago to hit a rich vein of form, but all along he maintained his status as the spearhead in the formation. His stature makes him a target for physical defending and also dictates the formation to a large extent. There are so many creative midfielders at his disposal that he rarely sacrifices one for a more mobile strike partner; this partly explains why Chalov has not been included in the squad, as by the manager’s own admission, it is better for him to be at the forefront of the under-21 side than sit on the bench for the seniors.
There is less pressure on getting a full three points here for Russia. After this fixture they will have played their three most challenging away fixtures and will still be in second place barring a catastrophically heavy defeat. They also sit in prime position to sneak into the playoffs due to their position as League B’s best performing team not to win their group. Depending on how the match develops there are different options for Cherchesov to exploit in almost every position. Rarely have Russia been in such a comfortable position – they simply have to hold their nerve.
Scotland vs Russia – Players to watch
Ryan Fraser #11 – Scotland
If Scotland have any ambitions of gatecrashing the top two places in this group and thus claiming an automatic place at next summer’s pan-continental finals, they have to create plenty of chances. This is where Fraser comes in. His short powerful stature makes him a very difficult player to dispossess out wide, from where he delivers ample crosses into the box. Only seven players have attempted more crosses per game in the Premier League this season. For Scotland he has contributed more assists than anyone else last season, so his supply line will be vital if the hosts are to threaten the Russian defence.
Mario Fernandes #2 – Russia
Not only will Fernandes have the job of keeping Scotland’s left flank quiet with both Fraser and captain Andy Robertson marauding down his side, but his own attacking threat will be key. For CSKA Moscow he is often given license to raid forwards to use his delivery into the box and disrupt opposing defences. One weakness that has been highlighted before is his occasional tendency to get caught out of position. His direct goal threat is obvious given his height, heading ability, accurate eye for goal and attacking instincts, even if he has not registered many goals throughout his career; before this season he had only managed five for club and country. More importantly, his composure in defensive positioning will come under intense scrutiny.
Scotland vs Russia – Match Stats
- Scotland have only kept three clean sheets out of their last 14 European Championships qualifiers at home
- They have met Russia twice, both times coming in the same stage before Euro 96, and both encounters ending as draws
- Although Scotland have the backup option of qualifying for Euro 2020 via the playoffs, having won their Division 3 group, defeat here would leave them six points from a top-two spot in this Euro 2020 qualification group
- Russia have won seven of their last eight European Championships qualifiers, keeping a clean sheet in six of those
- After four games they are top goalscorers in their group with 15, and they haven’t conceded since their opening match away to runaway group favourites Belgium
- They have only lost twice away from home in Euro qualifiers in the last 12 years
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Scotland vs Russia – 1-1
Scotland vs Russia – Possible Lineups
Marshall – O’Donnell, Mulgrew, Cooper, Robertson – McTominay, McGinn – Forrest, McGregor, Fraser – McBurnie
Manager: Steve Clarke
Guilherme – Fernandes, Dzhikia, Semenov, Zhirkov – Ozdoev, Zobnin – Aleksey Miranchuk, Golovin, Bakaev – Dzyuba
Manager: Stanislav Cherchesov
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.