- Scotland need two wins to reach Russia 2018 play-offs
- Gordon Strachan’s side have taken ten points from their last four qualifiers
- Charlie Mulgrew part of a much-improved, entirely left-footed defence
Between 1974 and 1990, Scotland took their place at five successive FIFA World Cups™. Now, they’re one misstep away from five straight qualifying failures.
With just two Group F games remaining against higher-placed sides, Slovakia (H) and Slovenia (A), the equation facing the Scots is simple: lose or draw either match and they can kiss Russia 2018 goodbye. Only back-to-back wins will keep them in the play-off race.
Yet despite the precarious nature of this position, Gordon Strachan’s squad are in buoyant mood. “To have it in our own hands at this stage, we couldn’t really ask for any more,” defender Charlie Mulgrew told FIFA.com. “We always kept believing within the group that we could put ourselves in this position. But it obviously wasn’t looking great for us at one stage.”
‘Not great’ represents something of an understatement. In their last three qualifiers of 2016, Scotland picked up just a single point, and even that came from scraping a 1-1 draw at home to Lithuania. When morale-sapping 3-0 defeats to both Slovakia and England followed, it seemed the writing was on the wall.
Now, however, the Scots go into these final Group F matches having taken ten points from an available 12 in 2017. It would, indeed, have been a perfect 12 but for Harry Kane’s 93rd-minute equaliser in a stirring 2-2 draw with the English.
That Kane strike in June is also the last to have been conceded by Strachan’s side, with three clean sheets in their last four matches evidence of a new-found defensive solidity. Mulgrew has been an ever-present throughout that run, impressing at centre-half, a long-standing problem position for the Scots. But he is keen that credit for those shutouts is shared throughout the side.
“It’s not just saying it – defending really is a team effort,” he said. “Look at the way we pressed Lithuania away, for example. That meant there was so much less for the guys at the back to do.
“The same goes for attacking. We can’t just leave that to the players ahead of us. When defenders have the ball, we’ve got to be thinking about how best to use it and getting the team moving forward. The manager is big on us being brave on the ball and that means not just booting it into Row Z as soon as you’re under a bit of pressure.”
Distribution and use of the ball have long been among Mulgrew’s strongest assets. Such are his attributes in this respect, in fact, that he has spent large chunks of his career with both club and country playing either in midfield or as a wingback. This has left the Blackburn Rovers star well placed to adapt to the changing demands that modern football places on its central defenders.
“The way the game has developed, playing football from the back is a big part of things and I feel confident doing that,” he said. “It’s a part of the game that I enjoy. You still have managers who’ll want you just to win headers, clear the ball and kick folk, but more and more are seeing how important it is to keep possession and get the ball to the better players’ feet.”
Ball-playing centre-halves may be becoming the norm. The same cannot be said for a defensive unit – back four and goalkeeper - made up entirely of left-footed players. That, however, is just what Scotland have relied on in recent matches.
“I’ve been lucky there; it’s the boys playing right-back and right-centre-half who deserve most of the credit,” he said, referring to Kieran Tierney and Christophe Berra. “It is definitely unusual and I don’t think I’ve ever played in a defence full of lefties before. But if it was all right-footed players no-one would bat an eyelid. And you can see from the results that it’s certainly not a problem.”
Whatever foot they prefer, and whatever their form or previous fortunes with the national team, Scotland’s players all face the same challenge. They must win, and then win again. Do that and they might yet end that long run of World Cup failures and earn their place in national folklore.