Witnessing the buoyant Tartan Army roar their team off the park at the end of Saturday’s draw in Ireland, it would have been easy to conclude that Scotland had just taken a massive step towards qualifying for Euro 2016.
A glance at the autumn itinerary, however, would quickly have reminded all those of a Scots persuasion that the road to France is still a hazardous one, rutted with potholes. While the other home nations, England, Northern Ireland and Wales, all look more likely than not to secure a place at next summer’s finals, Scotland’s failure to win in Ireland means their hopes, in the sobering light of post-Dublin day, are no better than 50/50.
With top spot in Group D looking certain to be taken by either Poland or Germany, there are, realistically, three avenues into France for Strachan’s men: finishing second; being the best third-placed team; or through finishing third and winning a play-off against either an under-performing big nation or a burgeoning smaller nation like themselves.
Thus far, it has been slightly typical of Scotland and its ever-frustrating relationship with football, that the team’s resurgence under Strachan has coincided with Poland, their main rivals for the second automatic qualification spot, rediscovering their own mojo following a period of lull. While Scotland, results-wise, have done as well as could reasonably have been expected in collecting 11 points from a possible 18, the Poles have done even better than anticipated after beating the Germans in October.
It is that unexpected result in Warsaw that continues to prove the fly in the ointment for a Scotland team who would ordinarily have hoped their impressive form so far would be enough to have them in second place by now. With Poland three points ahead of Scotland and both teams having a similarly difficult run-in, it looks as though the Scots will have to beat Poland at Hampden in their penultimate qualifier in October if they are to have any chance of finishing second. A win over the Poles – achievable but far from an odds-on chance – would be enough to give Scotland the head-to-head advantage, which would come into play in the not unfeasible scenario that the teams are level on points at the close of play.
Assuming both teams will win their remaining matches against Gibraltar, a Scottish victory over Poland would effectively mean that, in order to finish second, their points tally from their two other games, Georgia away and Germany home, would only have to equal that which the Poles accumulate from their trip to Germany and home game against Ireland. On paper at least, it is probably easier to make a case for Scotland taking four points from their two games than it is for Poland.
On any one-off day, Scotland could win in Georgia, beat Poland at home, take a point at home to Germany and then go and make mincemeat of Gibraltar, but the big problem facing Strachan’s men is that they are effectively being asked to string together all those results in the space of five crucial autumn weeks and take nine or ten points from a possible 12 at a time when the stakes are at their highest.
Such has been the competitive nature of this qualifying section, it has been hard enough for the on-form Scots just to keep themselves in touch with the top two and ahead of the unspectacular but spirited Irish in third place. To jump into second place and then see it through to the end with the hopes and expectation of a nation on their shoulders will take a monumental effort from a set of players who, for all their improvement over the last two years, have never known any kind of business-end success on the international circuit.
There is an argument that Strachan is arguably already squeezing as much as he possibly can from the current group of players at his disposal. Aside from the impending return of key man Robert Snodgrass from injury and the gradual rise of Stuart Armstrong at Celtic, there aren’t a great deal of options for the manager to suddenly kick the team into another gear for the last four games. Scotland have a solid and dependable core of around 40 players they can call on, but their strength lies in a strong collective. Without a genuine star with a knack of being able to make the difference when it really matters, much will depend on whether or not Strachan can continue to keep the team churning out results until the end of the campaign. The feeling persists that Poland possess that bit more high-end quality in their ranks which could prove crucial in the race for second.
The most realistic route to France, then, appears to come via finishing third and it is in this part of the analysis where picking up a point in Dublin has to be viewed as a positive. Had Scotland not fought back to earn a 1-1 draw, they would have been in fourth place and the Irish, instead of being deflated, would have had the bit between their teeth, while Scottish hopes would have looked pretty forlorn.
Ireland, two points behind the Scots, still have to play the exact same four opponents as Strachan’s men in the run-in and given that, Saturday aside, the Scots have generally looked the more sure-footed of those two teams throughout the campaign, it is probably fair to say that Martin O’Neill’s team are outsiders in this two-way battle for third place. In essence a play-off, at the very least, looks like Scotland’s to toss away.
Seven or eight points from the last four games may give Scotland an outside chance of ending up as the best third-place finisher. They are currently second, a point behind Hungary, in that particularly table, but several teams are in with a shout. In light of Scotland’s traditional misfortune over the years allied to the cut-throat nature of this particular section, it would be a surprise if they were to qualify as the best third-place finisher out of nine.
And so it may be that their impressive campaign boils down to an anguished two-legged play-off in November. Given that Scotland haven’t genuinely threatened to qualify for a major tournament since they got to the play-offs for Euro 2004, that would be a reasonably satisfactory outcome in its own right, although given the sense of expectation that has developed under Strachan, failure to see it through would have to be deemed a disappointment.
As things stand, the other teams staring at the possibility of a play-off are Netherlands, Israel, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Norway, Albania and Slovenia. Scotland would be entitled to fancy their chances against a few of those sides, but would not be able to take two-legged victory for granted against any of them.
Ideally, they need to finish second and eradicate the daunting possibility of a play-off with the Dutch or the Russians. The team Strachan has assembled has brought hope to a nation and, in drawing twice in Poland over the past 15 months, has shown that it probably has the potential to beat Adam Nawalka’s team at Hampden and bring the prospect of automatic qualification to life.
The optimism and belief around Scotland is justified, but it must also be tempered by an acknowledgement that there are several other competent teams in the mix who are equipped to take the wind out of the Scottish sails over the next five months. All Strachan’s men have done so far is keep themselves in with a fighting chance. The hardest phase of the journey still to come.