When it was announced five years ago that the 2016 European Championships would be increased to accommodate 24 teams, it was viewed in Scotland as a welcome incentive for the increasingly embattled national team.
We might not qualify for the next three big tournaments, but we’ll have France 2016 to fall back on, was the general train of thought. And if we can’t qualify for that then we might as well give up.
There is now widespread acceptance that the Scottish national team is in a seriously bad way despite claims of tentative progress under Gordon Strachan over the past few months. By the time the qualifiers start in a year’s time, however, there will be the usual hope, optimism and expectation as we bid to return to the big time.
Even with eight more places on offer than usual, though, will Scotland really be in any better a position next September to mount a challenge than they have been at the outset of each of the eight previous failed qualifying expeditions? There will be 53 teams vying for 23 slots to join hosts France, with the top two in each group qualifying automatically, along with the best third-placed team, and the other eight third-placed teams entering a play-off.
The opportunity is there, then, if Scotland can land a favourable group and retain their current bullish demeanour. Despite the renewed optimism and flippant remarks about how we can’t fail to qualify for the expanded Euros, however, the smart money, sadly, remains on us licking our ever-deepening wounds again.
For starters, Scotland, currently 33rd of the 54 teams on UEFA’s national ranking list, will be shooting from the fourth pot. To finish in the top two and qualify automatically, they will have to outperform at least two teams deemed better than them. To get into a play-off they would have to outperform at least one superior rival. Then to qualify, they’d probably have to beat another higher-ranked team over two legs. In short, despite the increased opportunity, Scotland will still be required to punch significantly above their weight to make it to France.
In a worst-case scenario, they could be drawn alongside Spain, Belgium, Turkey, Macedonia and Kazakhstan, which would effectively leave them battling Turkey and Macedonia for a play-off spot before a ball is kicked. The best group we could hope for on paper would consist of Greece, Hungary, Israel, Moldova and San Marino, which would at least give us a fighting chance. Even then, would we really be confident of picking up many points in Budapest, Tel-Aviv or Athens? Or of avoiding being picked off on the counter-attack by technically-superior Hungarians and Israelis at Hampden?
Chances are Scotland will get a group somewhere in between those two extremes, perhaps along the lines of Portugal, Denmark, Serbia, Georgia and Malta, which would still take an almighty effort to get out of. Many optimists will argue that Scotland are only down in pot four because of the perceived incompetence of George Burley and Craig Levein, the two previous managers. Following credible performances against Croatia, England and Belgium, they will conclude that Scotland are on the way back under Strachan. Games against the elite nations, however, have never been a particular problem for Scotland. Burley’s best performance came when his side almost beat the Netherlands at home. Likewise Levein’s best two displays came home and away against Spain. While the win in Zagreb was exceptional – up there with Paris 2007 – there was nothing particularly remarkable about the spirited displays in defeats by England and Belgium. Gallant failure against the big guns has become the Scottish way, regardless of who the manager is.
It is in games like tonight’s, in Macedonia, where Scotland really need to improve if they are serious about making any impact in the next qualifying campaign. They must find ways of winning away to the less-glamorous nations. This is something the Scots have toiled with, particularly in Eastern Europe. Until Croatia, their only notable wins in this part of the continent in the last decade had come against Slovenia (2005) and Lithuania (2006).
Valuable points have been squandered in drawing in Moldova, Belarus and Lithuania and losing in Georgia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Czech Republic and Serbia. There is a feeling that Scotland have underachieved in slipping up in many of these places, but, when the best available attacker for the current double-header is Shaun Maloney, of the humble Wigan Athletic, there comes a point when you wonder if these countries, most of whom have at least one top-level player in their ranks, have simply overtaken us. We’ll get a proper idea tonight against Goran Pandev and his merry Macedonian tricksters if indeed there is any way back from the abyss under Strachan.