|Venue: Estadio Algarve, Portugal Date: Wednesday, 2 June Kick-off: 19:45 BST|
|Coverage: Listen live on Radio Scotland & online; text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
For a generation, Scotland’s only function in the weeks before a major championship was to be target practice for other nations.
Like boxing journeymen, they’d turn up and try hard, then clear off and let the big boys get on with it.
Mercifully, this time it’s different. Had David Marshall not done the heroic thing against Serbia every football fan in this country would be under the duvet for the next month or so, peeking out only occasionally to check if this nightmare of the Euros in Scotland (with no Scotland) has ended yet.
Instead, we have a footballing nirvana – an attractive game this evening against the Dutch and a second run-out against Luxembourg on Sunday. Meaningful matches before the group stages begin with an eminently winnable contest against the Czech Republic, an intoxicating meeting with England and a denouement against Croatia, who could only draw 1-1 against Armenia on Tuesday.
Nobody’s decrying the state of the national game. Nobody’s writing blueprints. Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney, Scott McTominay and John McGinn are talents that any country of Scotland’s size, and many of much greater size, would love to have.
Billy Gilmour is marked out as a special player in the making. Liam Cooper is the revered Marcelo Bielsa’s captain at a hugely impressive Leeds United. Callum McGregor is a serial winner who has averaged 61 games over the last four years. Let’s hope he’s had a chance to take a breather. He’s a fine player.
Che Adams is a fast-improving centre-forward who scored more Premier League goals last season than Timo Werner and the same number as Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus. Albeit operating at a level below Adams, big Lyndon Dykes finished his season with QPR by scoring six goals in his last eight games. It’s not a bad time to find form.
So the questions we ask now are not the ones we’ve been asking for years while boring ourselves to tears in the process. Now it’s an altogether different conversation based on excitement and promise.
And those chats start in earnest today as Steve Clarke begins the final countdown to June 11 and that opener against the Czechs. Players, combinations, formations. Everybody’s trying to read Clarke’s mind now, which is easier said than done. He is about as readable as Amarillo Slim, the legendary card shark with the most pokery of poker faces in all of pokerdom.
1. Who plays in goal?
David Marshall’s feats in qualification will never be forgotten but things have not gone his way in the months after his penalty saves against Israel and Serbia. His club, Derby, stayed in the Championship by the skin of their teeth, but Marshall was dropped for the last three games of their campaign after conceding 16 goals in his previous eight.
You can’t lay the blame for Derby’s porousness at Marshall’s door but you have to wonder how his confidence is right now. His competition is Craig Gordon, who finished his season with eight clean sheets in a row, admittedly against a lower level of opposition than Marshall would have faced.
Clarke tends to keep faith with those who’ve delivered for him in the past, so Marshall is probably still ahead of Gordon. There can’t be much between them, though. The manager will surely play as close to his strongest team as he possibly can against the Netherlands. That should tell us something.
2. Kieran Tierney, Grant Hanley and…
Scott McTominay has played in a three-man defence off and on for Clarke, but the manager has already said the Manchester United player – absolutely terrific in the Europa League final last week – will be operating in midfield at the Euros.
Given that Tierney – beloved at Arsenal – is a certainty at left centre-back and that Hanley has re-emerged in recent games – he’s started the last three – that leaves the right centre-back slot. Jack Hendry has started two of the last three games – the 2-2 draw against Austria and the 1-1 with Israel – alongside Hanley and Tierney. Declan Gallagher and Scott McKenna were on the bench for both of those matches.
Hendry has revived his career brilliantly with Oostende in Belgium and he’s one to watch. Gallagher has never let Clarke down and Cooper is a Premier League captain with a club that finished ninth. There’s a fair old scramble for that position.
3. When to blood Billy?
Billy Gilmour has now met up with the squad following Chelsea’s Champions League win on Saturday. He didn’t get any game-time – nobody expected him to – but his international debut is nigh, probably on Sunday against Luxembourg and hopefully from the start.
Gilmour is clearly a player of massive potential but with so few matches under his belt it’s hard to know what kind of influence he can have over the next month, if any. There’s a great romanticism about his story but Clarke doesn’t go a bundle on fairytales. Everybody might want Gilmour heavily involved but Clarke is as pragmatic a manager as you’ll find. Many at Chelsea would advise him to not mess about and just stick him in there from the get-go but Clarke is more circumspect than that. How riveting would it be if Gilmour lights up the team when he’s given his chance. We’ll have a bit more insight come Sunday evening.
Something similar can be said of David Turnbull and Nathan Patterson. Two more talented players and two more unknowns at international level. The former has a posse of players ahead of him and needs a minor miracle to get any minutes in the group stage. Any chance he gets, he needs to take with an unmissable flourish. The latter is a wildcard. He’s a rookie and raw as hell, but he looks fearless. He has stepped up into European competition with Rangers and has done well in the few games he’s played. His pace makes him particularly interesting. Stephen O’Donnell will almost certainly start at the Euros but there’s something about this Rangers kid and his breakaway qualities that’s fascinating.
4. How is Ryan Fraser?
The Newcastle winger hasn’t played since scoring for his country against the Faroes at the end of March. He’s been dogged by groin and hamstring problems and last month his manager, Steve Bruce, described it as a “gamble” when asked if Clarke should pick him in the squad.
How much of that is Bruce desperately wanting him to stay behind to get a proper pre-season? Clarke picked him regardless. No wonder. When Fraser is fit and on song he’s a vital cog in this team, a scorer and creator of goals in a side that needs as much threat up front as it can muster. Scotland’s goals return against decent opposition remains meagre.
Will we see Fraser in either of these games? You’d hope so. He needs the minutes in his legs. Scotland are a different team with his pace, delivery and cleverness on the ball.
5. Is Che Adams the real deal?
The Southampton striker scored against Chelsea and Manchester City last season, not a bad double given they turned out to be the best two teams in Europe. He got nine league goals and one for Scotland against the Faroes. He’s now looking the player that had everybody so excited when he got 22 in the Championship with Birmingham in 2018-19.
Adams is only 24 and has overtaken Lyndon Dykes as Clarke’s first choice up front. He also finished the Premier League in good order, scoring in two of his last three games. He’s still a relative unknown in Scotland, but his strength and work-rate is obvious. He’s an all-round good player, an excellent find by Clarke.
If he plays against the Netherlands it’ll be the highest calibre opposition he has faced for Scotland. The Dutch won’t have Virgil van Dijk but they’re not lacking for centre-halves; Daley Blind of Ajax, Matthijs de Ligt of Juventus, Stefan de Vrij of Inter Milan, Nathan Ake of Manchester City.
If Adams scores against those boys then the excitement level ahead of the main event will ratchet ever higher. These two warm-up games will be instructive in so many ways.