There will be tension in Trnava tonight as two under-pressure national teams battle to try and resuscitate their fading hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Even as early as the three-game mark, both Slovakia and Scotland know that defeat in the 19,000-capacity Anton Malatinsky City Arena, some 30 miles north east of Bratislava, could have a fatal impact on their bid to qualify for Russia.
Jan Kozak’s side, who made it to the last 16 of Euro 2016 just four months ago, are in a grimmer than anticipated predicament with no points from two admittedly difficult matches against England and Slovenia, although the second seeds in Group F at least have the solace of a raft of more winnable games to come.
Scotland may be in a healthier state, with four points from their two games thus far, but the fact they have been unable to claim a maximum haul from two of their most winnable fixtures on paper has left them, like their hosts, with minimal margin for error and a disenchanted public to appease.
Put simply, defeat tonight for either side would leave them requiring an unlikely sequence of results to get back into contention for a top-two finish.
Perhaps empowered by the fact they still occupy second place in the section in the wake of Saturday’s exasperating draw at home to Lithuania, the Scotland squad arrived in Slovakia in upbeat and bullish mood yesterday. Although the match in Trnava has been billed as the most defining of under-fire manager Gordon Strachan’s reign thus far, the Scots are confident of ensuring it is their Slovakian counterparts who are left feeling the heat tonight and waking up to negative back-page headlines tomorrow.
“They have not started well so we will look to take advantage of that,” said Scotland goalkeeper David Marshall. “Slovakia will be under pressure and they will be looking to bounce back. Hopefully we can start the game well because the first goal is going to be important. There is no reason we can’t get a result if we play well.”
Marshall acknowledges that Scotland have left themselves up against it in the fight for a top-two finish after being held by Lithuania. However, he believes that a win away to Slovakia can repair the damage from the weekend. It is not beyond possibility, after all, that Scotland could be three points clear in second place by close of play tonight and heading for next month’s Wembley showdown with England in buoyant mood.
“There is a small margin for error in qualifying,” said the Hull City goalkeeper. “There was one game in the last campaign that hurt us [the defeat in Georgia]. You know you have to win the vast majority of your home games to get there, but maybe, with the way this group is, there are going to be a lot of teams taking points off each other.
“Everybody looks at Slovakia being the big challenge for second place in the group, but you just never know what is going to happen. We just hope that the away games that people expect us to get draws in, we can maybe pick up all three points, starting in Slovakia.”
Matt Ritchie is aware of the flak flying Scotland’s way in the wake of Saturday’s setback. However, he insists a degree of perspective is required from those condemning a draw with Lithuania as unforgivable at this early juncture in the campaign when teams all over the continent are still trying to find their rhythm.
“Listen, you don’t ever qualify for a World Cup easily,” said the Newcastle United attacker. “You don’t do it by winning every game in the campaign – it just doesn’t work out that way. Hopefully, we can get the win in Slovakia. That’s the aim but this is a tough group. We came across a little bump against Lithuania and we want to get back to winning ways.
“This is a long campaign. It isn’t all about Saturday’s game or this game but we want to pick up as many points as possible and we’ll go there planning for a victory and expecting one as well.”
Ritchie is wary of a Slovakian backlash tonight, and insists Scotland shouldn’t be guilty of looking at them in a disparaging manner simply because they have no points on the board thus far. Although their status as second favourites in the group has been damaged by a couple of 1-0 defeats by England and Slovenia since the campaign began last month, Slovakia still boast good pedigree, certainly in comparison to Scotland. They have competed in two of the last four major tournaments and have lost only two of their last 15 home games. They also boast a talisman in the shape of Marek Hamsik, the Napoli captain, who is on a different level to anything Scotland have at their disposal in the attacking area of their team. The dangers are clear for the Scots if they start with the same lack of purpose that undermined them against Lithuania.
“They’ll have the bit between their teeth and trying to put things right so it’s going to be a tough game for us,” said Ritchie. “But they’ll also be under a lot of pressure because they haven’t had a great start and they know that they need to get something from this one.
“The way we started against Lithuania meant we didn’t get control of the game. We wanted to dominate a bit more but we weren’t quite good enough. We need to start more aggressively against Slovakia but we can’t afford to be too gung-ho. If you throw the kitchen sink in then you can be caught on the counter.”
Marshall certainly won’t be underestimating the hosts. After all, his last visit to this part of the world as part of Strachan’s team brought one of the most distressing nights of his career when former club Celtic were demolished 5-0 by Artmedia Bratislava in a Champions League qualifier 11 years ago. “Cheers for that,” was the 31-year-old goalkeeper’s response when reminded by a journalist of this chastening experience. “As a Celtic player and fan I don’t think there was much worse than that. I hope it is a bit better this time.”