Probably for the first time since Craig Brown was in charge, Scotland will this autumn embark on a qualification campaign for a major tournament with a good degree of enthusiasm and no reason for trepidation.
The last time there was any genuine optimism about the way the national team was shaping up ahead of a tilt at qualifying, it was severely tempered when Walter Smith’s group were pitted in a Euro 2008 Group of Death alongside Italy, France and Ukraine.
In other campaigns, Scotland have had more favourable groups, but, mainly due to lack of momentum and the presence of unpopular managers, haven’t been able to call on the same feelgood factor that accompanied that brave but ultimately fruitless bid to make it to Switzerland and Austria under Smith and then Alex McLeish.
After Sunday’s draw put Gordon Strachan’s revitalised Scotland in a group alongside Germany, Ireland, Poland, Georgia and Gibraltar, there is a genuine sense that qualification for the expanded Euro 2016 is attainable. Germany will surely canter through the section. Then it looks a three-way scramble between Poland, Ireland and Scotland, for second and third place. The bookies certainly don’t fancy Scotland, who are priced up at 7/2 to make the finals, and it’s easy to see why.
Despite the sense that we have nothing to fear from Poland and Ireland, the smart money still has to be on those two following Germany home, simply because they have better pedigrees than Scotland over the past 15 years and, certainly in Poland’s case, have better players. Scotland trying to qualify for a major tournament these days has become like St Mirren attempting to make the top six of the Premiership: it always looks pretty achievable on paper but invariably the other teams turn out to be better.
In order to qualify automatically and avoid the emotional turmoil of a play-off, Scotland will probably have to finish second, which will require Strachan’s side to outperform a Poland team who can call on three players who have each made over 100 appearances for Borussia Dortmund, last season’s Champions League finalists. In addition to Robert Lewandowski, Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowkski, the Poles can also pick from a smattering of mid-rank players from the Bundesliga and Serie A, as well as three top-end English Premier League goalkeepers. Despite a desperately underwhelming tilt at qualifying for this summer’s World Cup, they are still a good notch or two above Scotland on paper and must be respected, especially if the new manager, Adam Nawalka, has the desired effect.
Likewise, it is expected that Martin O’Neill will find a way of arresting the slump which Ireland have been in since their dismal showing at Euro 2012. Like Scotland, the Irish have a diminishing talent pool and their squad, littered with English Championship players, looks as limited as Strachan’s on paper. With their talisman, Robbie Keane, now 33 and on the wane, their best players, Aiden McGeady, James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman, can all be found at Everton. Their best striker, Hull City’s Shane Long, is of a similar ilk to Scotland’s main hitman, Steven Fletcher, while both defences are short of the type of genuine quality usually required to make it to major tournaments. In short, there looks to be very little between Ireland and Scotland.
If the Poles – and Lewandowski in particular – are in the groove, it could come down to which of O’Neill or Strachan, pictured, is best able to coax that bit extra out of their charges over the course of the campaign in order to make a play-off. If Poland are to flop again, though, the door could open for the Scotland-Ireland battles to decide who goes to France automatically. Moments of magic from the Norwich City mavericks, Wes Hoolahan and Robert Snodgrass, or their Wigan Athletic counterparts, James McClean and Shaun Maloney, could prove pivotal to their respective nations.
As is always the case with Scotland, they are going to have to be more than the sum of their parts over the course of the campaign and hope that at least one of their main rivals underperforms. They are also going to have to win when the heat is on, and deal with increased levels of expectation if they get into a challenging position, which is something they have struggled badly with over the last eight campaigns.
Qualification for Euro 2016 still looks a tall order, but it’s been a long time since so many ingredients were in Scotland’s favour. At the very least, Strachan’s side can surely expect to be in the hunt for a play-off spot going into the business end of the campaign. That in itself is a refreshing thought in light of the toils of the last campaign.