Scotland’s players will run out at Ljubljana’s Stozice Stadium tomorrow fuelled by the tantalising prospect of having it within their grasp to end a nation’s agonising 20-year exile from major tournament finals.
Victory over a deflated Slovenia side will give the resurgent Scots a crack at the play-offs for the first time since they were denied a place at Euro 2004 after being defeated 6-1 win by the Netherlands over two legs 14 years ago.
In the intervening six qualifying campaigns, Scotland have gone into their final qualifier with automatic qualification or a play-off spot at stake three times – in Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012. On each of those occasions, however, they were tasked with having to defeat a genuine superpower – Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain – in their concluding fixture, and ended up losing gallantly in each match.
Their latest opportunity to seal a play-off berth comes against what can be described as softer – and eminently more beatable – opposition, with Slovenia, fourth in Group F, having effectively been eliminated from the reckoning by Thursday’s 1-0 defeat away to England.
Despite the sense that Scotland, who made it three victories in succession when they beat ten-man Slovakia at Hampden on Thursday, have momentum at the critical phase of their latest qualification bid, the players were not allowing themselves to be caught up amid the expectation building in their homeland as they flew out to Ljubljana today.
Craig Gordon, who was between the sticks on that agonising occasion when Italy won 2-1 at Hampden ten years ago next month, is determined to capitalise on this golden opportunity but still feels there’s a long way to go before he can allow himself to dream of playing at the World Cup finals in Russia next summer.
“I was involved when we played Italy and we didn’t manage to do it, so I’d rather not feel that again,” said the Celtic goalkeeper. “We’ve got it in our own hands but we’re away from home and they’re a good team. It took us until very late in the game to beat them at Hampden (in March). We know we’ll have to play really well – probably better than we did against Slovakia on Thursday.”
Eleven months ago, after a 3-0 defeat by England at Wembley in their fourth qualifier, the prospect of Scotland entering their tenth and final fixture in second place looked improbable. They languished fifth in the six-team section, four points adrift of second-place Slovenia, and Gordon Strachan’s role as manager was under serious scrutiny, to the point where potential successors were being widely discussed.
The landscape is very different now. Four clean sheets and 13 points from their five qualifiers this calendar year have catapulted them ahead of Slovenia, Slovakia and Lithuania and into the box seat in the battle for a play-off berth behind group winners England. Gordon, one of several players to come in from the fringes and make a telling impact in the second half of this campaign, insists the squad had never given up on qualification – even if the public had. By the same token, however, he is not allowing his focus to waver amid the buzz of optimism presently gripping the nation.
Asked if he sensed the chance to make it to Russia had slipped away after drawing at home to Lithuania and losing away to Slovakia and England last year, Gordon said: “No. We knew it was going to be difficult, and it’s still going to be difficult. We still need to go to Slovenia and win, and even if we do that, we’ll have a double-header against another team that’s finished second in their group. It’s still a fair distance away. There’s still a lot of work to do.
“We’ve kept it going to the last game and given ourselves a great chance, which is what we needed to do. The atmosphere is great in the squad at the moment. To win a game the way we did against Slovakia is always going to help us bounce into the next game with an uplifting feeling. We’re in a good place at the minute. We weren’t at our best against Slovakia but we got the job done. That’s a good sign.”
The way Scotland are defending at present, they are entitled to be hopeful that one goal tomorrow may be enough to take them into the play-offs. Only England, through Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Harry Kane at Hampden in June, have managed to score against the Scots in competitive action in 2017. The left-footed quintet of Gordon, Kieran Tierney, Christophe Berra, Charlie Mulgrew and Andy Robertson have brought some much-needed defensive harmony to the side.
“That’s three clean sheets in a row for the first time since 1999, so that’s massive from my point of view,” said Gordon, who won his 50th cap on Thursday. “That’s a good place to start to try and win any game. It’s a great place for the rest of the team to start from if we’re defending well. We limited Slovakia to few opportunities. I think we coped better with them sending the big guys up at the end. We knew we’d had to head some balls away in the last few minutes. I had big Chris Martin back in front of me heading one away at the end. We dealt with that really well and didn’t give them any chances late in the game. It was a good performance from our end to set the team up to go and try and win the game.”
Scotland are unbeaten on their only two previous visits to Slovenia. In a friendly in 2012, current Hearts captain Berra scored in a 1-1 draw, while the Scots won 3-0 in the final qualifier of the World Cup 2006 campaign. That was when Gordon, aged just 22, was just starting out on his journey into Scotland’s Hall of Fame. In the intervening 12 years, he has endured mixed fortunes while playing for his country, although every campaign has ultimately ended in deflation.
Thursday’s dramatic late victory over Slovakia at a euphoric Hampden gave the former Hearts goalkeeper one of his highlights so far. “It was definitely one of them,” he said. “It’s right up there. There was obviously Paris as well (in 2007). There’s been some great highs – hopefully there’s another one to come in Slovenia.”