Nations League is Scotland's stairway to Euro 2024 - starting with Armenia at Hampden

Stomachs still churn and hearts still ache among the Tartan Army six days since Scotland’s World Cup play-off defeat by Ukraine.

Tuesday, 7th June 2022, 7:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 7th June 2022, 4:33 pm

Watching Wales knock the eastern Europeans out on Sunday didn’t really quell the frustration. A sense of missed opportunity may linger for some time, however in reality there is no time to dwell. One door closes, another opens in the relentless world of modern international football.

The latest UEFA Nations League campaign begins for Scotland on Wednesday evening at Hampden Park against Armenia. It is an absolutely vital tournament to Steve Clarke’s side for multiple reasons.

Firstly, it offers a competitive fixture just a week after that meek surrender to Andriy Yarmolenko, Roman Yaremchuk and Co; a chance to get back on the horse and earn a smidgen of redemption from a still-gutted fanbase.

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Precious little about Scotland’s performance last week could be deemed acceptable for all the steady improvement under Clarke. Victory over Armenia would boost morale both in the changing room and on the Hampden slopes.

Secondly, the 2022/23 Nations League provides a potential pathway to the 2024 European Championship play-offs. As witnessed for more than two decades, qualifying for major tournaments isn’t exactly a Scottish strength so every available avenue must be exploited.

The 12 highest-placed teams in the Nations League who do not reach Germany 2024 through the European Championship qualifying campaign will be awarded a place in the play-offs. That means three sets of one-legged semi-finals and a final to fill the remaining three spots at the Euros.

Scotland, of course, are familiar with this route having successfully navigated it to reach Euro 2020. That was on the back of a successful run in the inaugural 2018/19 Nations League.

Scotland manager Steve Clarke and his squad prepare to take on Armenia at Hampden on Wednesday in the Nations League. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Penalty shootouts against Israel in the play-off semi-final and Serbia in the final tested the Tartan Army’s cardiovascular durability, but it all worked out in the end. David Marshall’s save from Aleksandar Mitrovic in Belgrade is ingrained in the memory after sparking wild celebrations during a depressing Covid 19 pandemic.

Fans were naturally frustrated by restricted crowds because of the health risk at the delayed Euro 2020 finals, so the chance to get the party started in proper numbers would be warmly welcomed.

Thirdly – and this is the really interesting bit from a Scottish perspective – Scotland would be second seeds for Euro 2024 qualifying if they finish top of this Nations League group. Standing in their way are Armenia, Ireland and Ukraine [yes, we need to play them again].

Being seeded second obviously provides a greater chance of finishing in the top two of your qualifying section. Countries finishing first and second in Euro 2024 qualifying groups automatically progress to the finals: No need for play-offs, penalty shootouts, or another six games against Israel.

So what we are looking at is a potential domino effect. The better the results in the Nations League during 2022, the higher Scotland finish in their group, and the greater chance of a higher seeding to help in Euro 2024 qualifying which takes place during 2023.

Not since 1998 has a Scotland side qualified directly for a major international tournament without needing play-offs. The Nations League can be the first step on a stairway that leads all the way to Germany. If Clarke and his squad topple off, it can provide the safety net of a play-off spot.

It is quite natural to feel the impact of a comedown following Ukraine’s comfortable win at Hampden. With that might come a tendency to sigh at the prospect of the Nations League, which is clearly third-rate behind the World Cup and Euros. A few fans are even selling their tickets for the Armenia match.

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Anyone dismissing the competition as a waste of time or, to employ Scottish parlance, a “diddy tournament” isn’t understanding how it works. It is notably more complicated than the standard qualifying campaigns, but the paucity of Scotland’s presence at major finals means they have little choice other than to embrace it.

It is tedious and boring trawling through UEFA documents to get a full understanding of how Nations League groups tie in with tournament seedings. Senior officials at the Scottish Football Association have done just that, as will Clarke and coaching staff. They all get the importance of it.

There are many potential pitfalls for the Scots in League B, Group One, starting with Armenia. Joaquín Caparrós’ team shouldn’t be taken lightly despite sitting 92nd in the FIFA world rankings compared to Scotland in 39th.

They lost 5-0 to North Macedonia, 4-1 to Germany and 9-0 against Norway in the last seven months. Nonetheless, a 1-0 victory over Ireland in Yerevan on Saturday was a thrilling way for the team from the Caucasus region to open their Nations League campaign. It also underlines the potential for a shock at Hampden.

A reorganised Scottish side is to be expected with Lyndon Dykes already withdrawn from the squad due to injury. John Souttar, Nathan Patterson, Jack Hendry and Ryan Christie are all in contention to start on Wednesday.

Will Clarke alter his favoured 3-5-2 system? It is reasonable to call for a back four with attack-minded full-backs and more width in the final third. Yet the national coach is fiercely loyal and resists change for the sake of change.

He is now focused on three matches likely to prove integral to the country’s chances of reaching Euro 2024. After Armenia on Wednesday comes an away double header – Ireland in Dublin on Saturday followed by Armenia again in Yerevan three days later.

Two meetings with Ukraine and another with Ireland take place in September to complete the Nations League group ties. The draw for Euro 2024 qualifying takes place in October with matches staged throughout 2023.

The World Cup is gone and a new tournament follows hard on its heels for Scotland. They need to be ready, because Euro 2024 qualification effectively starts now.