Gordon Strachan will not decry the Scotland support’s overdue sense of giddy excitement but he has called on his players to keep calm heads as they seek to move to within one game of a World Cup play-off berth.
If Scotland beat Slovakia at Hampden Park on Thursday a win in Slovenia on Sunday would guarantee second place in Group F. Given Scotland have not appeared at a major finals since 1998 – and routinely have not appeared close to doing so – anticipation is high. Strachan, though, has urged his team to retain emotional stability.
“The atmosphere will change every minute of the game from ‘Yeah, this is great’ to ‘Oh, Jeez, here we go’; depression to back up again,” Scotland’s manager said. “While that is going on with the fans – who are totally entitled to do that – we have got to stay at a level that is not being affected by that. People have to stay focused. But there is only so much you can do as a coach. They have to stay focused themselves.
“The fans have paid their money. They want to get excited and all the rest of it. We have got to stay above it. You can’t ask them to sit there and say: ‘Och, it’s not a problem, the boys have got it well in hand.’ That isn’t football.
“The fans will be saying, ‘Let’s go for it, get up for it’, and all the rest of it. We have got to stay above that. There are times when we will have to stay patient on the ball and the crowd will be saying, ‘We want the ball to go forward’ but there is no point in getting it forward because they have two big centre-backs who will head it back up the pitch and we will be in trouble again.”
Strachan reverted to sporting parallel when assessing a scenario in which qualification, from looking unattainable, is within Scotland’s grasp. He said: “If you are a golfer coming into the last two holes two ahead. If you are down in tennis and somebody is serving for the match, can you deal with that? You get this in any sport.”
The earlier meeting of Scotland and Slovakia brought a comfortable 3-0 win for the hosts in Trnava. At the point of a subsequent defeat by England, Strachan looked to be playing out the final acts of his tenure. “I think we really need to know we could have been out of this thing four or five games ago,” Strachan said. “So I think there was more pressure than now. There is still pressure now, no doubt about it, but there is more excitement about it than the real nitty-gritty we had three or four games ago.
“I’m excited. That’s been the overall thing since I knew I was packing my bags the other day to come up here; excitement.”
Strachan’s key selection dilemma relates to midfield, given injuries to Stuart Armstrong and the Scotland captain, Scott Brown. The widespread assumption is that Darren Fletcher will replace Brown but Strachan has talked up the abilities of Sheffield Wednesday’s Barry Bannan.
“Some of the best performances I’ve seen in the last three weeks have come from Barry Bannan,” Strachan said. “That’s in different areas, different positions, as a sitting midfield player, on the left, across on the right at times. Mark [McGhee, Strachan’s assistant] feels the same. Everybody who has watched him thinks technically he has been wonderful; a great range of passing.
“Slovakia are a right good side. They are like a club side, they’ve been together for a long time. Anyone with any knowledge in football will know how tough it’s going to be.”
Scotland (4-2-3-1, probable): Gordon; Tierney, Berra, Mulgrew, Robertson; D Fletcher, Bannan; Forrest, Morrison, Phillips; Griffiths.
Slovakia (4-2-3-1, probable): Kozacik; Pekarik, Skrtel, Durica, Hubocan; Kucka, Lobotka; Mak, Hamsik, Weiss; Nemec.
Referee M Mazic (Ser)
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