Next up: The worst footballing nation in the world. Yes, it might be premature for San Marino fans to apply that label to Scotland, but such considerations have not stopped the more disaffected Tartan Army adherents from scabrous comment in the aftermath of the humiliation by Kazakhstan in the Euro 2020 opening qualifier.
A 3-0 loss to a team ranked 117th in the world was bad enough, but it was the manner of the capitulation that rankled most with Alex McLeish’s critics, some of whom have been on his case since the start, fuelled by a mixture of resentment at his abrupt departure from the Scotland job for Birmingham City in 2007 and the knowledge that he only got a second tilt at the job because the Scottish Football Association failed to lure Michael O’Neill from Northern Ireland.
In his second incarnation as Scotland manager, McLeish has already been to the brink, after an anaemic Nations League defeat by Israel in Haifa in October, and although he oversaw a recovery to win the group and book a play-off semi-final spot, his 11 games in charge now include seven losses.
Paradoxically, McLeish’s overall record in both spells in charge of the national team made him the most successful Scotland manager going into the Kazakhstan game but, as he has observed, momentum is crucial and he cannot afford anything short of an emphatic performance against San Marino, who lost 5-0 in Cyprus on Thursday.
McLeish is also having to cope with a period of significant transition of the Scots’ playing strength, but the result in Nursultan used up any reserves of goodwill. Peter Grant, McLeish’s assistant, used the SFA Twitter account to warn the players that there is no margin for error tomorrow.
“They have to make a statement,” Grant wrote. “It doesn’t matter who you play, you have to earn it. There are no givens in any football match. You have to earn everything you get in a football match.
“People say it’s the easiest thing in the world to defend – we proved it’s not, because you have to defend as a group and that comes right from the front. We didn’t do that well enough.
“Against the ball we weren’t good enough and with the ball we weren’t good enough and if you have that combination you are not going to win games of football.
“So, we have to put it right against San Marino, we have to win the game, and it has to be a much better performance.
“We played too safe at times. We passed the ball slowly and across instead of in between or beyond. We talked about that because it happened in Israel as well. That was a massive problem in Israel. We played too slowly, we played back too often, we played square too often, and it happened again.
“Kazakhstan were making it like a cup tie, they were wanting to get the ball in behind and support it quickly. And that’s part of football, we can’t all be Barcelona. You have to match your runners, you have to be willing to run harder than them and go and support your players, and we didn’t think we did that well enough. The players are obviously disappointed and as a staff we are gutted because it wasn’t the performance we expected from this group of players.”
Andrew Robertson joins the squad in San Marino, having missed the debacle in Nursultan because of dental treatment. The Liverpool man will resume in place of Graeme Shinnie, whose performance as a makeshift left back was so poor that the Aberdeen man subsequently confessed his fear that he might never be selected again.
Whatever line-up and formation are deployed by McLeish, it is unthinkable that Scotland can play with such lack of conviction against a San Marino team marooned at the very bottom of the Fifa rankings, in 211th place, and who have not scored a goal since they found the net in Azerbaijan on Sept 4, 2017, while conceding 39 over 10 competitive games.
Scotland’s task in qualifying is simply to fulfil their status as second seeds and to finish the group between Belgium and Russia. As matters stand, that aim looks much less attainable than it did three days ago, even in a group topped by Cyprus, with Kazakhstan even more improbably in second place.