As the six-month countdown to the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign begins with tomorrow’s friendly in Warsaw, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan has plenty to ponder with regards to his preferred starting XI.
With such a raft of options, all of a relatively similar standard, to select from it is difficult to see the manager establishing a nailed-on starting line-up which he is able to stick with for a succession of games. He will no doubt have a rough idea of the team he’d like to field, all being well with players’ fitness and form, but it seems pretty safe to assume that the team that starts when Scotland return to Poland for their third qualifier in seven months’ time will not be a carbon copy of the one that takes the field in the National Stadium in Warsaw.
Every national team, of course, is liable to change over such a period of time, but it is even harder to imagine what the Scotland starting XI might look like when the qualifiers begin in September, simply because there are so many similarly-matched players in the mix at the moment.
Darren Fletcher is the only genuine top-level player who would ordinarily be considered a guaranteed first pick for Scotland, but even then it is impossible to say at this stage whether he is still capable of scaling the impressive heights he reached before serious illness halted him in his tracks for the best part of two years.
After that, Strachan has a raft of low-end or unspectacular English Premier League players, top-end Championship players and a handful of Scottish Premiership standouts to sift through and cobble into a cohesive unit that can take us all the way to France.
To underline the dilemma facing the manager, he could arguably pick two completely different starting XIs of equal ability. For example, the side that flourished in the closing few games of the last World Cup qualifying campaign under Strachan was roughly along the lines of: McGregor; Hutton, Martin, Hanley, Whittaker; Brown, Mulgrew; Bannan, Snodgrass, Anya; Naismith.
Yet, assuming all were fit and firing, Strachan could just as easily select another entirely different XI which might, on paper, be considered even stronger: Marshall; Bardsley, Caldwell, Berra, Wallace; Darren Fletcher, Adam; McCormack, Morrison, Maloney; Steven Fletcher.
And that’s not even counting the likes of James Forrest, James McArthur, Chris Burke, Craig Conway, Craig Bryson, Leigh Griffiths and Jordan Rhodes, who have all featured under Strachan and would, in the eyes of some, be viewed worthy of prominent roles.
It would be that bit easier for Strachan to pick his team if he had more high-end players, like Darren Fletcher, who would be considered automatic selections as long as they are fit. When Steven Fletcher was being, fancifully, hailed as the nation’s potential saviour during that awkward period when his impasse with Craig Levein was coinciding with him scoring regularly in the English Premier League, the hope was that his rise would have taken him to a top club by now.
In terms of form and fitness, things haven’t really gone as planned for the former Hibs striker at Sunderland, and his wretched miss in Sunday’s Capital One Cup final, below, underlined why he is unlikely to make it to the same esteemed level as his namesake, Darren. As things stand, the likes of Steven Naismith, a regular at Everton, and Ross McCormack, the Championship’s top scorer, would arguably be entitled to feel they have as much right to a starting berth as Fletcher.
In some regards, this absence of any genuine talisman is a good thing as it means the squad is more able to cope comfortably without the absence of any particular player. For example, the absence of the burgeoning Blackburn Rovers defender, Grant Hanley, for tomorrow’s match can’t be considered a massive blow when Strachan has the in-form Ipswich Town centre-back, Christophe Berra, with 28 caps already to his name, waiting in the wings and desperate to re-establish himself in the side.
Like any international manager, Strachan will be keen to stick with those who have already done him a turn as much as possible, but fitness issues and form fluctuations mean he will have to utilise the full depth of his squad throughout the campaign, while also introducing a few wildcards along the way, such as the impressive Dundee United left-back, Andrew Robertson.
For what it’s worth, if everyone was fit and firing, my favoured Scotland starting XI would be: McGregor; Hutton, Martin, Berra, Bardsley; Brown, D Fletcher; Snodgrass, Morrison, Maloney; S Fletcher.