THE theory is Scotland have nothing to play for as they prepare to face Macedonia in Skopje. Chances of World Cup qualification evaporated months ago and many are eager for this campaign to end.
Except there is one cause left to fight for, and a fairly important one at that. The ignominy of finishing bottom of Group A is one the Scots are desperate to avoid.
With only one win from eight games in their qualifying section so far, it is little surprise that Gordon Strachan’s team are propping up everyone else. June’s 1-0 victory in Croatia apart, this is a qualification series best forgotten. Yet those who step out at the Philip II of Macedonia National Stadium tonight will do so with a definite purpose.
Scotland have never before finished bottom of a World Cup qualifying group and the current set of players have just two games remaining to haul themselves at least into second bottom position - admittedly a minor consolation.
After Macedonia tonight, Croatia visit Hampden next month. Two games to salvage a modicum of respect, even though a place in seeding pot four for the European Championship qualifiers is almost certain.
“We’ve got pride about ourselves, we don’t want to finish bottom of the group,” stressed midfielder Shaun Maloney. “Macedonia just beat Wales and when we played them at home it was a tough match. It will be something similar tonight.
“I think we’ve all noticed there’s a slight change in the feeling around the squad in the last few games. We want to carry that on.
“I think we will take heart from our last two games [against Croatia and England]. I know we drew with Macedonia at Hampden but I think, in large parts, they were worthy of a wee bit more. Look it’s tough, but we have to make it very difficult for them to beat us, and then hopefully produce something a bit more creative in the final third. The onus is on me and the other players to do that.”
This evening’s encounter should carry many similarities to the game against Croatia in Zagreb, which Scotland won thanks to Robert Snodgrass’s decisive goal. Macedonia share a style of play and a mentality comparable to Croatia’s, and the environment will be just as hostile.
“It will be pretty similar,” said Maloney, who expects Strachan to name a similar line-up to that which lost 2-0 to Belgium at Hampden on Friday.
“There won’t be wholesale tactical changes from us. I think we need to try and do a bit more in the opposition final third. We tried that on Friday but it’s easier saying that than doing it, particularly against a side like Belgium. We’ll try to be a bit more creative against Macedonia.
“I don’t think Macedonia are as good as Croatia, but they do have some individual players who stand out and play at a really high level.
“We are going to have to be pretty wary of them. I expect the game won’t be too dissimilar to the Croatia match over there. Hopefully it’s a similar end result…that’s what we’re all looking for.”
Goran Pandev, the Macedonian captain, is their star turn and a player who can influence a game on his own and played last time Scotland visited Skopje in September 2008
“I played in that match but this game is at night so it should be a wee bit easier,” Maloney added. “At the end of the day, it’s the same for both teams. It shouldn’t be too much of an advantage or disadvantage.”
Maloney picks apart the debris from Friday night in candid fashion. The chasm in quality between Scotland and Belgium was clear for all to see and the Wigan Athletic player doesn’t shirk from the truth.
“I think the performance level was something similar to our last couple of games. The opponents were probably another step up, though,” he explained.
“I’d say there’s a pretty big gulf in terms of where they are and where we are. At 1-0 we were still in the game but we tried to chase the game in the last five minutes or so. The second goal makes it look a bit more comfortable than it was. I think we played as well as we had in the last couple of matches.
“Belgium’s players are real star players within their clubs. They have a physicality about them and technically they are all very good players. Right now, you struggle to find weaknesses within their side. If they carry on the way they’re going, I can see them being a real force in major championships.”
It may be some time before Scotland even reach another major championship – last time was the 1998 World Cup in France – let alone be a significant force in one. Strachan has improved the national team since succeeding Craig Levein but there are still limitations to be addressed.
“We’re trying to get better on the ball,” said Maloney. “There were times at the back when we were trying to play into midfield and we are trying to do that because we understand you can’t consistently give the ball away. You have to keep possession, and that’s a big thing going forward. I don’t think there is a lack of effort or any lack of desire to get better.
“There was a lot of defensive work within the midfield three on Friday. I thought we all did okay. We tried to play and complement each other within the system we’ve been playing.”