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Scotland’s bumpy road to salvation reaches end game in Slovenia

Gordon Strachan manager of Scotland reacts during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Group F Qualifier between Scotland and Slovakia at Hampden Park on October 5, 2017 in Glasgow, Scotland.

Scotland’s World Cup qualifying campaign has been epitomised by fine margins to such an extent that they will the relish the clear-cut nature of its conclusion.

The scenario is simple: a win for Gordon Strachan’s team in Slovenia will secure second place in Group F. Bosnia’s defeat by Belgium on Saturday means a play-off berth would thereby be guaranteed. Given the stark Scottish failures of recent qualifying attempts even that represents commendable progress.

A last-minute equaliser against Lithuania last October, while barely celebrated at the time, provided an indicator of things to come. Scotland’s World Cup dreams could have been dashed in March before the substitute Chris Martin – earlier booed on to the Hampden field – notched an 88th-minute winner to down Slovenia. The subsequent visit of England to Glasgow was defined by late madness; Scotland edged ahead with free-kicks from Leigh Griffiths before Harry Kane punished multiple concentration lapses during stoppage time. Martin Skrtel’s own goal, such a huge moment in Group F, arrived in the dying embers of Scotland hosting Slovakia on Thursday. The recurring theme perhaps means nobody should expect a straightforward game in Ljubljana on Sunday. Strachan, rightly, draws inspiration from it all.

“It shows we have a fitness level,” said Strachan on Saturday evening. “People talk about mental strength but I could put you guys out there and I know you’d try as hard as you could to get a victory for Scotland. But you couldn’t do it because you are not fit enough.

“You’d give it your best but you’d be knackered after 20 minutes. So you have to have the physical strength to keep the mental strength going. Our players have shown they have that in their locker. The fans know we have it in our locker as well.”

This is a position Strachan would have gladly accepted before a ball was kicked in the group. “I think so, yeah,” he added. “I think we all agreed at the start of the group that, with what England have got, second place would be a smashing achievement. It’ll be another long and nervous night, I think.”

Strachan’s own position and popularity has of course been intrinsically linked to the recurring moments of salvation. The Scotland manager has been elevated from being only seconds away from holding an untenable post to the present, where he could be a national icon. Since Craig Brown led the Scots to France in 1998 – their last finals appearance – Berti Vogts, Walter Smith, Alex McLeish, George Burley and Craig Levein have sampled varying degrees of painful failure to the point where the job came with the asterisk of a health warning.

It was widely assumed Strachan would call time on his tenure at the conclusion of this campaign. Such an upturn in fortunes has, however, triggered debate over whether the Scottish FA should move heaven and earth to retain the former Celtic manager, whatever Sunday’s outcome for Scotland. The man himself is calm, with his players apparently the same. “I just think there is the right balance about them and I really don’t see a difference in them,” he said.

Strachan remains single-minded over issues of selection. There was a shoulder shrug from the 60-year-old last weekend when it emerged Newcastle United’s Matt Ritchie was unwilling to take his named place in the Scotland squad because of unhappiness at a lack of playing time. While this probably reflects far more poorly on Ritchie than his international manager, Strachan has never offered platitudes to, or chased, players.

There was also the earlier and unorthodox decision to field Kieran Tierney, Celtic’s outstanding left-back, on the right side of defence so as to accommodate both he and Andy Robertson. A makeshift back four that also includes Charlie Mulgrew, plying his trade in League One, has not conceded in three games.

If there is any area of pre-match concern for Strachan in Slovenia – the carefree nature of the hosts aside – it could be the potential for play-off suspensions. Scotland’s improved form has coincided with the deployment of Griffiths as a regular starter. Should the striker be booked in Ljubljana and Scotland earn the knockout spot they crave, Griffiths would miss the first leg of a play-off.

“That is something I’ll have a conversation with him about,” Strachan said. “I’ll need to have a word. His performances of late have been terrific. I just thought he was magnificent the other night.

“His part in the goal was unbelievable. We had talked to them about pushing themselves that little bit more than you think you can. Then you see the way he stretched to get to the ball just to toepoke it through to Ikechi Anya. That toe poke won us the game.

“That’s the difference at this level. People talk about systems and tactics but when it came down to it, what won us that game? Leigh Griffiths turning, stretching even though he might get hurt and toepokes it. That’s what made the difference.”

Slovenia, who were dismal in that Hampden match seven months ago, will not be underestimated by confident visitors. “They have a fantastic record here and they’ll want to keep that going,” said Strachan. “They’ll probably be thinking they should be in second place just now if it hadn’t been for some last-minute goals.”

Slovenia’s aspirations have been blunted by the loss of two experienced midfielders, Valter Birsa and Rene Krhin, to suspension. They have not, though, conceded a home goal throughout this campaign. “The expectations are the same for every other game,” insisted Srecko Katanec, Slovania’s outgoing head coach. “We’re well prepared and the atmosphere in the team is good. I’m not surprised by Scotland’s good form.”

It is an illustration of that revival that a sizeable Scottish support has travelled more in expectation than hope.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ewan Murray in Ljubljana, for The Observer on Saturday 7th October 2017 23.03 Europe/London

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