Two years ago this week, a beleaguered Scotland team arrived in Belgium to have their faint World Cup qualification hopes as good as terminated just over a month into the campaign.
Things are different this autumn, with Gordon Strachan’s resurgent side having touched down in Warsaw genuinely believing they can make it to Euro 2016. The fly in the ointment, however, is that Poland are equally buoyant and, having picked up three ‘bonus points’ in their surprise win over world champions Germany on Saturday night, they know they have the chance to leave the Scots’ qualification hopes hanging by a thread by beating them in the National Stadium tonight.
It promises to be a serious test of character for Strachan’s men, although there is little evidence from the past year and a bit to suggest they will fall short. Over the past 16 months, Scotland have won in Croatia, Macedonia, Norway and Poland, while also giving a good account of themselves in gallant defeats away to England and, most recently, Germany.
While the 1-0 friendly victory in Warsaw back in March provides an obvious source of encouragement for the Scots, the players believe that low-key game, in which the Poles were without talisman Robert Lewandowski, will count for little in relation to tonight’s high-stakes encounter. “Their squad was not as strong as they have now,” said left-winger Ikechi Anya, who is hoping to shake off a calf problem in time to face the Poles.
Instead, it is the fearless counter-attacking display the Scots produced in Dortmund last month, against a German side basking in the glory of their World Cup triumph just seven weeks earlier, which is giving Anya most optimism. That campaign opener ultimately ended in a 2-1 defeat for Strachan’s side, but the Watford wide man and Tartan Army favourite believes that if the Scots can frighten newly-crowned World Cup winners in their own manor, then they are capable of subduing the fired-up Poles.
“If you look at Germany as the benchmark game, if we can play like that against the best team in the world, why can’t we do it against Poland?” said Anya. “We can get the three points.”
The Scots are boosted by having notched their first points of the campaign against Georgia at Ibrox on Saturday in a 1-0 win which was more comfortable than the scoreline suggests. While they looked at ease as favourites on home soil, Anya feels Scotland are equally dangerous as underdogs on the road – a role they will reacquaint themselves with in the Polish capital this evening. “We will get a good chance to counter-attack,” continued Anya, a man whose best performances in dark blue have come in away matches. “Georgia sat off a bit but the onus will be on Poland to get a goal. Then we can use the pace of myself, if I am lucky to play, and other attackers.”
Anya believes the collective spirit that Strachan, Mark McGhee and Stuart McCall have been able to foster has made Scotland a durable enough unit to cope with formidable assignments such as this evening’s. “It is the whole management team – even the backroom staff and the physios. There is great team spirit and every player wants to go out there and perform for their country. When you have that you are going to play well. It’s similar to a club mentality.
“The manager has been quite consistent with the picks and every now and then a new face comes in. We all know each other and know each other’s games and it shows on the pitch.”
Team-mate James Morrison, meanwhile, believes there is steady improvement from Scotland with each game. He is hoping that trend continues in Eastern Europe. “We’ve got a solid squad and we keep building every time we meet up,” he said. “The lads are taking on board what the gaffer’s doing. We don’t want to get carried away though – we just need to keep taking it game by game.”
In terms of being the first competitive away game in which Scotland have had anything notable riding on it – the Germany match was always viewed as a free hit – tonight’s is arguably the biggest of Strachan’s reign so far. “It’ll be a tough away game,” said Morrison. “We’ve been there recently and done well but this will be a totally different game. They’ve got their main striker back but if we play as well as we did against Georgia, I think we’ll do alright. It’s a great stadium but it’s a hostile place. It’ll be even more hostile because it’s a competitive game. We’ll need to be confident on the ball and solid in defence. We need to be hard to beat, first of all.”
Morrison is buoyed by having been chosen ahead of Darren Fletcher for the Georgia match. He believes that the fact Scotland are now in a position where they can choose to leave out their long-time captain and highest-status player highlights the increased strength of the squad. “It was huge to be picked ahead of Darren – I felt proud of that,” said Morrison. “Darren’s a fantastic player. I could feel him breathing down my neck. He’s a terrific pro and he got on well with being left out. I’m sure he’ll be a part of it in Poland.
“You can’t rest on your laurels in this squad. You’ve got to be playing well every game because if you don’t someone will take your place. You just have to look at the bench on Saturday to see who’s there. We’ve got Premier League players and other boys who have started in the past and done really well.”