Monday 16 September 2019

Belgium's injury woes not enough to lift Scots team low on confidence

INJURY CRISIS: Belgium will be without Eden Hazard
INJURY CRISIS: Belgium will be without Eden Hazard

Roddy Forsyth

The best news for Scotland ahead of tonight's Euro 2020 qualifier against Belgium at Hampden Park is that the visitors will be without the brothers Hazard, both of whom are injured, while afflictions have also ruled out Vincent Kompany, Dedryck Boyata and Axel Witsel.

Usually, the loss of half an opposing outfield might encourage anticipation of a heartening night out for the Tartan Army.

In this campaign, though, confidence was banished when the final whistle sounded on an opening defeat in Kazakhstan and has never been restored, despite the replacement of Alex McLeish by Steve Clarke, the people's choice as manager because of his feats while in charge at Kilmarnock.

For 20 minutes in the Scots' meeting with Russia on Friday, it was possible to believe that Clarke had effected a bounce but, after John McGinn's goal, the team conceded territory and will to the Russians and finished 2-1 losers.

When the group was drawn, pundits and fans alike wrote off Scotland's two games against Belgium as improbable sources of reward and the first meeting, in Brussels in June, confirmed that prognosis. The equation could verge on humiliating this evening if the Belgians maintain their perfect record in the qualifiers.

In that case, the Scots would stay behind Kazakhstan, who meet Russia in Kaliningrad, and would slump to second bottom place if Cyprus win in San Marino.

Invited to assess the difficulty of the task he has taken on, Clarke said: "It's every bit as big as I thought before I started. It's a big challenge for us because we haven't qualified for a long, long time so there's a lot of pressure.

"The reality of modern-day life in football is that everyone wants a quick fix. If you win three games you're a genius and if you lose three games you're an idiot. That's basically where we are at just now.

"So, I just need to try to prepare the team properly and work with the players and keep working towards the end goal which is qualification. Come April next year, that's the time when you'll see whether we've done good work or bad work."

One deficiency that could not be ignored on Friday, as the Scots allowed their forceful and positive start against Russia to drift out of their control, was the absence of a snarling motivator on the field - the likes of Scott Brown, who called time on his international career to devote the latter portion of his career to Celtic.

Leaders

"Modern players have changed," said Clarke. "They are different from the players of 20 to 30 years ago. When you speak to managers and ask them about leaders they say, 'Ooft! You don't get many leaders nowadays.'

"Are they different from my generation? Yes, definitely. Are they different from the generation of 10 to 15 years ago? Yes, probably. It's just the nature of evolution.

"Scott has been a great servant for Scotland but he's not available now, so you are hoping that someone will take up that mantle.

"I'm trying to find the right balance. Last time against Belgium we were defensively solid but didn't really have enough threat going the other way. You have to find that balance to let the opposition know - if we switch off, this team could hurt us."

Clarke, it turns out, did not treat his players to the hair-dryer treatment at half-time on Friday, preferring reason to ranting.

"A shock-and-awe tactic is not something I use very often," he said. "In my time at Kilmarnock I only used it two or three times.

"You have to work with the players, you have to reason with them and always be honest. You don't have to shout at people to be honest with them."

 (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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