Hands up if international week bores the life out of you?
I’m the same as you lot – except this week should be one of the most entertaining on record, especially if you’re a supporter of any home nation apart from England.
By Jonny Boyle – Lead Columnist – @beanroll
Northern Ireland can qualify for Euro 2016 next summer if they can take at least two points from their remaining two qualifying group games. It would be an incredible feat – and reward for boss Michael O’Neill, who has created a team capable of picking up results at home and on the road without any real star players to do the business.
Contrastingly, Wales and their main man Gareth Bale are practically in France, knowing they need just a point from their trip to Bosnia or the visit of Andorra this week to assure they finish among the top two in their group.
Martin O’Neill’s Ireland are in a similar boat to their Northern mates – albeit their hopes of making the tournament are a lot slimmer given they’ll probably have to beat Germany and Poland to secure automatic qualification.
And stuttering in both games could leave the door open for Scotland – four points adrift of the third-placed Irish going into their last two matches – to pick up either four or six points and steal a dream play-off spot at the death.
It’s a potentially historic week for the home nations and Ireland – but one us Scots are meeting with excitement and dread in equal measure.
On one hand, a huge victory over Poland at Hampden on Thursday and anything other than a win for Ireland against Germany could all but book that play-off spot heading over to Portugal for the final game against Gibraltar.
On the other, the Irish travel to Warsaw on the same day knowing a win would see them book an automatic place and relegate the Poles to taking our spot. That outcome may seem unlikely, but it is us after all. If there’s the good luck of the Irish, then there’s the horrendously bad luck of the Scottish.
Gordon Strachan had the country riding the crest of the biggest West Scotland wave earlier in the campaign after holding Poland in Warsaw and beating Ireland at Celtic Park.
If only they’d held on to a 1-1 draw with Germany in Dortmund to kick off the campaign, we’d still have faint hopes of bypassing the play-offs to make France.
Fans really did believe the 18-year wait for a major international tournament return was over. I’m 25 and I still struggle to really remember John Collins and co at France 98.
But all the great work of the campaign was undone by one hellish trip to Tbilisi last month – and that’s why things have to change as this week sees the Scots enter the Last Chance Saloon.
Strachan’s ran Scotland like a club team up until this point. And there’s not been much wrong with that approach.
A big part of his success has been building a squad of players who know each other, like each other and want to achieve together. It’s a club mentality amongst a group which only meets once every month or so.
He’s kept his squad relatively unchanged – injuries apart – but most Scottish fans could no doubt predict the starting XI he would select if every player was fit.
Strachan has named a 27-man squad for the upcoming qualifiers, but he’s strictly stuck to picking between the same 18 players throughout the whole campaign – and, at that, both Gordon Greer and Barry Bannan have only started once each.
Allan Hutton, Scott Brown, James Morrison and Steven Fletcher, particularly, have all earned recalls for Strachan on more than one occasion despite poor form for their club teams.
The defeat to Georgia showed a degree of blind faith in those players didn’t work. They’d done the job previously, but looked like players woefully out of form and that showed in the result.
So with two must-win games on the horizon, the former Celtic manager must be thinking about ways he can surprise their opponents – specifically Poland when they head to Hampden on Thursday.
Promisingly, he’s named Jordan Rhodes and Graeme Shinnie in the squad after both starred recently for Blackburn and Aberdeen respectively.
Added to that, Celtic hitman Leigh Griffiths is included in the selection while Steven Naismith and Matt Ritchie have done everything right in the English Premier League over the last month.
Scotland have players on form – it’s about time they were used.
Poland will arrive in Glasgow this week confident that they know what to expect from Scotland, but Strachan is in charge of that.
I can speak on behalf of the whole country when I call on the Scots boss to think with his head rather than his heart to get us that play-off spot.